Published January 13, 2015
North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il has been accused of being many things over the years: terrorist, womanizer, drunk, recluse, liar, kidnapper. Now he might be a contender for a new, unexpected label: statesman.
At a historic inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang this week, the world is getting its closest look ever at the 58-year-old portly, bespectacled head of one of its most isolated countries.
An image transformation is under way, even if the motives of North Korea's leader are largely a mystery. On Wednesday, chatting with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung before a round of talks, Kim Jong Il complained about Western media portrayals of him as a recluse.
"Western news reports say President Kim's visit helped me out of seclusion," he remarked wryly, drawing laughter from the South Korean, who faced him across a conference table.
The dramatic spectacle of communism's first hereditary successor making a surprise appearance at an airport Tuesday to greet Kim Dae-jung startled many South Koreans who had been accustomed to government reports that portrayed him as a villain.
"I felt that the stereotype image of Kim Jong Il in my brain was shattering," said Kwak Young-hee, a 45-year-old housewife. "He was not a freak. He looked perfectly normal and a rather capable leader."
By showing himself to the world on live television, a poised Kim Jong Il revealed a taste for boldness, and a sense of the history that pervaded his meeting with Kim Dae-jung after a half-century of hostility on the divided Korean peninsula. Their unprecedented meeting offered fresh hope for an end to Korea's Cold War.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan praised Korea's two leaders for their "vision and wisdom" in opening dialogue, and they drew encouragement from the region's major players: Japan, Russia, China and the United States.
"Kim Jong Il used President Kim's visit as an occasion to tell the world that he is not a dangerous and reclusive leader ruling a rogue country," said Kang Sung-yoon, a political science professor at Dongkuk University in Seoul.
Kim Jong Il, who rules with the aid of a personality cult, will have to do much more to win respect in the international community.
North Korea has masterminded an array of bombings, armed attacks and kidnappings since the 1950-53 Korean War, most of them directed at its southern neighbor. Its nuclear and long-range missile programs remain of great concern in Seoul, Washington and Tokyo.
Kim Jong Il has yet to be explicit about why he agreed to the summit, although desperation for economic resources from the rich South is a likely factor. North Korea's economy is a mess and its 22 million people have relied on outside food aid since famine killed hundreds of thousands in the 1990s.
Kim Jong Il was groomed to succeed his father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994 at age 82 — a few weeks before a planned summit with Kim Young-sam, South Korea's president at the time.
In the years that followed, Kim Jong Il consolidated his control over the military, outlasted predictions that his destitute regime would collapse and may finally have felt confident enough to fulfill his father's goal of hosting a summit.
The decision was still a risky one for the North Korean, who is aware that outside influence would chip away at his tight control over his people. It's unclear how much he wants to open up.
During a rare, secretive trip to Beijing last month, Kim Jong Il hinted that he understood the need for economic, if not political, change. He saluted China's capitalist reforms and toured a computer firm.
A pair of South Korean filmmakers who were kidnapped by Kim Jong Il and brought to Pyongyang in 1978 escaped in 1984 with secret recordings of the North Korean leader. On one tape, he expressed a need to open up to the West but said such a strategy could endanger the North Korean state.
Another unknown is whether Kim Jong Il, who is treated as a virtual god by his people, is capable of the flexibility required to negotiate deals with his South Korean counterpart.
According to South Korean pool reports, Kim Jong Il was brusque with his subordinates Tuesday, addressing them without the honorific titles commonly used in the Korean language. With Kim Dae-jung, he was chatty and charming.
"Kim Jong Il is known to be a smart, able man," said Baek Young-ok, professor of North Korean Studies at Myongji University in Seoul.
"It is evident when you see how he became a successor of his father as a ruler of North Korea and succeeded in keeping his post. But unlike his father, he is also known to be quite impatient, expressive and straightforward."
Eager to improve ties, South Korea has become a willing partner in Kim Jong Il's image makeover. Four months ago, President Kim Dae-jung drew criticism from the domestic opposition for describing the North Korean as a "pragmatist" and a "man of great insight."
With summit euphoria in the South at a peak, that view has become more widespread.
"We must reflect ourselves whether our negative view of him has been built on prejudice and the high walls we have erected in our minds," JoongAng Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, said in an editorial.