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Do we really know Kim Jong Un?

Posted March. 16, 2018 08:05,   

Updated March. 16, 2018 08:05


“I had expectations towards the new leader, but the propaganda was clearly fabricated,” said a young North Korea defector, referring to the ideology sessions he attended when he lived in North Korea. “I was curious about when and where he was born and who his mother was, but I was only informed that he was the son of Kim Jong Il,” said another student. "When my colleague questioned his birthdate and birthplace, he was summoned by a party member and was rebuked for asking,” said a defector who had worked as a teacher in North Korea. Students were curious about their new national leader, but there was no way to know about him.

This situation is no different from our understanding of the North Korean leader. Even South Korea’s National Intelligence Service knows little about him. “HUMINT (human intelligence) is not as efficient as it once was, so there is little information about Kim Jong Un,” said a senior government official. Even Kim’s age is unknown. He is estimated to be born in 1984, but some say that he was born in 1989 or even in 1981. A North Korean textbook passage tells a childhood tale of the leader, mentioning a car race in 1989, which he took part “when he was less than eight years old.”

The mysterious leader, however, has recently emerged from the shadows, meeting with South Korean special envoys on March 5. North Korean state broadcaster Korea Central Television aired scenes of the meeting and dinner for 10 minutes and 50 seconds. Kim greeted his guests with a smile, shook hands and received South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s letter with both hands. He seemed “normal.”

But that was it. South Korean government officials met with Kim, but the information that was delivered was limited. It is still unknown whether he regards South Korea as a partner, rather than a subject to be unified under communism, or whether he regrets previous provocations.

Rather, South Korean government officials spoke of Kim as “knowledgeable and polite.” Kim reportedly told jokes, making fun of himself. He is even seen as a “broad-minded leader,” proposing summit talks to U.S. President Donald Trump, who has accepted the invitation.

Of course, commending the counterpart prior to a critical meeting is understandable. That is probably why President Moon has cautioned that the matter should be “carefully handled and managed like glass.”

If so, the government should have been more cautious, refraining from commenting about the North Korean leader. Comments about his physical impression and overly generous remarks may send a wrong signal to the public, at this critical juncture prior to the inter-Korean meetings and North Korea-U.S. summit.

We should be mindful that we have only met Kim once. It is difficult to say that we know him well. It is crucial to collect accurate information about him and view him from objective perspectives, which will eventually increase the chance of denuclearization. It would not be too late to commend him afterwards.

In-Chan Hwang hic@donga.com