The beautification of Kim Jong Un

A South Korean magazine distributed in Busan shows Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in shaking hands on the cover.
A South Korean magazine distributed in Busan shows Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in shaking hands on the cover.(Joan Vennochi/GLOBE STAFF)


IN SOUTH KOREA, “the beautification of Kim Jong Un” marches on.

It’s an active, determined campaign to accept the North Korean dictator’s vague and shifting pronouncements about denuclearization, in hopes it will lead to normalized relations between North and South Korea. To the rest of the world, it may look more like dangerously wishful thinking. But optimism persists, at least partly because the glow from the April 27 meeting between Kim and the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, has not yet worn off.

Eyes still mist up when people talk about that historic rendezvous. First, Kim crossed the border into South Korea, becoming the first North Korean leader to do so. Moon then said, “I have never been to the North,” to which Kim replied: “Why don’t you cross the line now together with me?” With that, a ruthless tyrant with bad hair rebranded himself as a potentially kinder, gentler, reform-minded leader. The presence of Kim’s wife and sister also helped humanize him.

“The charm offensive worked for him,” said Chung-in Moon, a special adviser to President Moon for national security and foreign affairs and a professor at Yonsei University. For pragmatic reasons, he approves of Kim’s reboot: “Have you ever seen demons compromise? In the interests of negotiating, don’t demonize,” said the president’s adviser.


“Beautifying” Kim is seen as a means to an end that isn’t precisely defined, but involves peace and national security. So a glossy magazine cover displays a photo of a beaming Kim and Moon shaking hands. People take smiling pictures of each other standing next to cartoon-like cutouts of Kim and President Trump. And at a train station near the demilitarized zone, large photos from the day Kim and Moon met are set up on stands.

The line separating the two countries was established on July 27, 1953. Sixty-five years later, the area mixes tacky tourism with solemn remembrance. There’s a small amusement park and vendors selling hats, pens, and T-shirts emblazoned with “DMZ.” But there’s also the “Bridge of No Return,” where prisoners of war were exchanged; a monument to a bullet-riddled train destroyed during the Korean War; and off in the distance, North Korea’s beautiful and mysterious peaks.


Because of that painful history of war and separation — and the fierce desire to end it — the view from South Korea looks different than it does from the United States, as I learned during a Korea-United States Journalists Exchange program sponsored by the East-West Center, a nonprofit organization that receives funding from the US State Department. The Korea Press Foundation — a quasi-government agency affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism — arranged interviews and provided a translator.

The message from an array of speakers: Don’t demonize a known demon, in hopes he will be encouraged to find his better angels. That seems less likely, especially after North Korea accused the Trump administration of pushing a “gangster-like demand for denuclearization” right after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit there. But to Moon, the presidential adviser, that was “a hiccup,” and he urges patience. He said there are two ways to look at Kim. As an evil dictator, or as a leader who merely inherited a political system from his father and grandfather. If Kim is only described as irrational and cruel, “We could never talk to him.”


Privately, Trump is said to be getting aggravated with Kim. But publicly, Trump still buys into the Kim beautification project. On Monday, countering news reports that he’s growing more frustrated with the tenor of talks with North Korea, Trump tweeted: “Wrong, very happy!”

In South Korea, hope also springs from unlikely sources. “When you shine a light on an object, there is a bright side and darkness, too,” said Joo Seong-ha, who escaped from North Korea and now writes for South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper. However, trying to identify Kim’s “bright side” is a challenge. In the United States, complete denuclearization is viewed as the major goal. But the South Korean mission is less grandiose — the elimination of tensions and threat of attack.

To varying degrees, the local press is in on the beautification effort. Kim Jinho, a senior staff writer at The Kyunghyang Shinmun, a major daily newspaper, said he doesn’t believe Kim’s “DNA” has changed. Still, his newspaper takes the position that it’s better “to have more dialogue with North Korea.” Ahn Jungsik, the deputy editor of politics at SBS, one of three major broadcasting companies, said there are concerns that TV images are helping to soften Kim’s image. But “we just shoot the scenes,” he said. “The positive image of Leader Kim is not made by South Korean broadcasters. It is the outcome of the plans of North Korea’s propaganda division about how to improve Leader Kim’s image.”


“Beautification” is a much prettier word than propaganda. Whatever it’s called, Kim will either live up to it or turn it into an ugly joke.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.