In June in Singapore, he was a young autocrat making his debut on the world stage, about to go face to face with a U.S. president with four decades’ experience in the media limelight.
Kim Jong Un appeared confident and collected as he basked in the attention. Spontaneously strolling about the city and waving to excited crowds like a beauty queen, he dominated the news cycle and in many ways upstaged a president not easily upstaged.
Now the North Korean leader once again finds himself in the same city as President Trump and thousands of reporters.
He is no longer the newcomer. If Singapore was his introduction to the world, round two of nuclear talks in Hanoi is proof that he has secured himself a recurring role.
Fewer pundits are questioning the wisdom of a U.S. president sitting down with a murderous dictator and lending him a statesman’s legitimacy. The sight of U.S. and North Korean flags side by side is no longer remarkable.
Kim’s extensive motorcade, including his Mercedes stretch limo surrounded by a dozen running bodyguards, now graces TV screens across the world and not just North Korean propaganda broadcasts.
“What he’s trying to do is manipulate the media,” said Harry Kazianis, director of Korean studies at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest. “He doesn’t need bodyguards to run around his motorcade, but it creates a narrative that he’s an important world leader who needs to be protected.”
On Wednesday, Kim and Trump appeared side by side amid the camera flashes.
Trump, patting Kim on the shoulder, said meeting the North Korean leader was an “honor” and praised him as a “great leader.” On Twitter earlier in the day, he called Kim “my friend.”
Kim told Trump the period since the Singapore summit had required patience and effort and said that the two of them meeting again gave him “hope that we will be successful this time.”
Several analysts said Kim’s transformation from obscure and isolated dictator to savvy world leader could undermine the U.S. goal of denuclearization in North Korea.
It sends the message that he is a respectable head of state who should be allowed to retain his nuclear weapons, they said.
A summit with the U.S. gives Kim the “status boost marginal states crave,” political science professors wrote in Foreign Policy magazine, saying Kim now “gets to sit at the cool table.”
Kim’s rebranding also benefits him at home. Thae Yong Ho, a North Korean diplomat who defected in 2016, has said that Kim was using the summits to suggest that the country’s nuclear capabilities gave him the power to negotiate on equal footing with the United States.
Other experts, though, said keeping Kim engaged on the world stage creates an opportunity for progress in the long-stalled negotiations with North Korea on its nuclear program.
“His getting all that attention, something good can come out of it,” said Lami Kim, professor of international security at the University of Hong Kong. “I welcome that at least he’s talking.”
Former CIA official Andrew Kim, who laid the groundwork for last year’s summit, said last week that the convergence of Trump and Kim’s desire for a breakthrough in U.S.-North Korea relations was a rare opportunity where “stars have lined up.”
Even if the dictator’s true intentions are not yet clear, the U.S needs to continue to engage him directly, Andrew Kim told an audience at Stanford, where he is a fellow in international security.
In his talk, he recalled that the North Korean leader, when asked by U.S. officials last year about his willingness to denuclearize, responded that “he is a father and husband and he does not want his children to live their lives carrying nuclear weapons on their back.”
In the first few years of his rule, Kim usually made international headlines for his brutality: ordering the killings of his half brother and his uncle, detaining hundreds of thousands of his citizens in political prisons and tightening social control in North Korea.
The purges to eliminate any challenge to his power continue to this day, according to a report this month from the South Korea-based think tank North Korea Strategy Center.
Much of his recent news coverage has been much more favorable.
Kim’s drawn-out journey to Hanoi, traveling from Pyongyang on an armored train going 35 mph, was covered like a celebrity sighting.
South Korean media charted his progress through China on a map, like the Santa Tracker at Christmas. A Japanese broadcaster obtained footage of a rare unguarded moment of Kim taking a smoking break, his sister by his side, with locks of his hair hanging loose rather than slicked back in his normal style.
Some human rights advocates worry that in the flashy world of international diplomacy, the rights and needs of Kim’s people are quietly sidelined.
Liberty in North Korea, a California-headquartered group that works with North Koreans who have fled Kim’s rule, published interviews with escapees who said they were watching the summit with trepidation.
One escapee was quoted as saying: “The more Kim Jong Un develops his image as a normal leader, the quieter the voices calling for human rights for the North Korean people will become.”