Kim Jong Un surprises with savvy power plays

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s maneuvers on the international stage over the last few months have shocked some for their savviness.

Kim sent his sister on a charm offensive during the Winter Olympics, cracked jokes when meeting with South Korea’s president and knocked President TrumpDonald John TrumpSteele Dossier sub-source was subject of FBI counterintelligence probe Pelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' Trump 'no longer angry' at Romney because of Supreme Court stance MORE off balance this week by throwing a kink into their planned nuclear summit.

“It’s quite remarkable,” said Robert Manning, a senior fellow the Atlantic Council. “He’s been there for, what, five years, and the only person he’s hung out with is Dennis Rodman, and suddenly he’s this great statesman.”


This year has been something of a coming out party for Kim, who took power in 2011 when his father died.

Though the world knew him for his fiery threats to obliterate the United States, and he entered the U.S. pop culture lexicon in 2014 with Seth Rogen and James Franco’s movie “The Interview” — for which Kim threatened “merciless" retaliation — he hadn’t stepped foot outside North Korea since becoming its leader.

That changed in March when he visited Chinese President Xi Jinping. A second trip to China in April saw him become the first North Korean leader to travel by airplane in 32 years.

Kim also became the first North Korean leader to step foot in South Korea since the Korean War. In a dramatic ceremony last month carried live on news networks, Kim stepped across the border to greet South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Seemingly spontaneously, Kim then invited Moon to step into North Korean territory for a moment.

Later during the summit with Moon, Kim also joked that he wouldn’t interrupt Moon’s early morning sleep anymore, a reference to North Korea’s barrage of early morning missile tests last year.

“Kim’s absolutely been savvy,” said Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. “That’s why his sister was presented to the world at the Olympics. He and Moon were all smiles their summit. He pulled Moon across the border almost playfully. He’s certainly better at playing to world media than his father or grandfather.”

The charm appeared to work on South Koreans; a Korea Research Center poll after the summit had 78 percent of respondents saying they trusted Kim.

This week, Kim drew a line in the sand for the planned summit with Trump by threatening to cancel if the United States continues to demand “unilateral” nuclear disarmament.

North Korea’s statement also blasted national security adviser John Bolton for saying the United States is seeking a “Libya model” with North Korea. Experts say Kim wants nuclear weapons to ensure the survival of his government, so the comments from Bolton were likely received with alarm. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was ousted from power and killed less than a decade after agreeing to abandon his nuclear programs.

North Korea’s threat to cancel the summit prompted Trump to walk back Bolton’s comments and offer “protections” if Kim surrenders his nuclear weapons.

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPutin nominated for Nobel Peace Prize The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' Pompeo accused of stumping for Trump ahead of election MORE also appeared impressed with Kim after twice meeting him in person, saying that their conversations were “warm” and that Kim “shares the objectives of the American people.”

“Mike Pompeo is not a softy, and he seemed to be impressed,” Manning said.

“My South Korean friends had a positive reviews, too,” Manning added. “They were saying, ‘He’s just a normal guy, he likes rock music.’ … He’s proven to be very skillful, and I think people really underestimated him.”

Still, Manning and Cheng both noted Kim went to school in Switzerland, meaning his prowess isn’t entirely shocking; he knows how the Western world works.

“The style has changed, but has the substance?” Cheng said. “Underneath the glitzier, glammier, smilier Kim face is the same sort of thing that he has done before and his father and grandfather before him. … This is a guy who has a pretty long trail of corpses behind him.”

Indeed, many are loath to give Kim credit, citing his brutal tenure.

“He has a country that he has driven his people to extreme poverty, particularly contrast that to what we see in South Korea,” Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinPelosi hopeful COVID-19 relief talks resume 'soon' Congress must finish work on popular conservation bill before time runs out PPP application window closes after coronavirus talks deadlock  MORE (D-Md.) said. “So his leadership has been disastrous to his people, and he has the distinction of ruling the most oppressive country in the world. So I give his performances — reflect that. He’s a despot.”

Asked about Kim’s shrewdness on the world stage, Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineHillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Democrats call for declassifying election threats after briefing by Trump officials Buttigieg stands in as Pence for Harris's debate practice MORE (D-Va.) said he’s “not sure savviness would be the word I would use,” adding he would describe it more as “unpredictability.”

“This has been long a feature of North Korea before him, and I don’t necessarily see what it’s getting him,” Kaine said.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerHas Congress captured Russia policy? Tennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans Cheney clashes with Trump MORE (R-Tenn.), though, said Kim has been “fairly impressive” on the world stage so far, adding he hopes that helps the effort to get a disarmament deal.

“I think he’s been fairly impressive for a person who really hasn’t been outside the country much in recent times,” Corker said. “So I give him pretty good marks on international public relations.”

Corker also said he thinks the Trump administration has no illusions about Kim’s skill or his motivations.

“No, I’m not worried about that,” Corker said Thursday when asked if Trump is underestimating Kim. “I met Pompeo last night. I think Pompeo, Bolton, Trump — I think they have a pretty clear-eyed view of what they’re dealing with.”

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSteele Dossier sub-source was subject of FBI counterintelligence probe Hillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Key Democrat opposes GOP Section 230 subpoena for Facebook, Twitter, Google MORE (R-S.C.) said it is Kim who is underestimating Trump.

"I think he’s playing an old game that won’t work with the new president,” Graham said. “I think he’s making a big mistake to go back to playing the old game. ’Cause here’s what’s going to happen: If we don’t get a deal, and he continues to try to develop his nuclear program, we’re going to have a war, and he’s going to lose it. He doesn’t get that.”