A likeable bully

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Picture: RNZ

SEOUL – For years, he has been regarded by South Koreans as a ruthless bully, the face of a hostile neighbour intent on developing weapons of mass destruction whose subjects heeded his every whim.

But during a 12-hour visit across the border on Friday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appeared to soften that image, at least somewhat, by presenting himself as a normal, even likeable fellow with candid, humble side and a quick wit.

It was a rare glimpse into Kim, who has rarely left his country and is normally depicted in the hero-worship language of the North Korean propaganda machine.

But on live TV watched by millions of South Koreans, he smiled warmly, talked, joked and even embraced South Korean President Moon Jae-in during the first inter-Korean summit since 2007.

“I’ve only seen him in media, standing stone-faced in a nuclear site or political event, but actually he seemed quite friendly and respectful when he greeted Moon,” said Lee Soo-kyung, a 34-year-old teacher in Seoul.

Some US officials and experts doubt Mr Kim’s sincerity, and see a flurry of North Korean diplomacy as a ploy to win relief from economic sanctions against Pyongyang.

Mr Kim has often shown a ruthless side.

He has been accused of having his half-brother and uncle killed to consolidate his hold on power. Under the grip of Mr Kim’s one-man rule, the country has many dissidents and political opponents in prison camps, according to defectors and civic groups.

US intelligence experts are trying to build a profile of Mr Kim for President Donald Trump ahead of a planned summit between the pair, but direct knowledge of Mr Kim remains limited and is like a “black box,” according to one US official familiar with the profiling efforts.

Mr Kim and Mr Moon pledged at their summit on Friday to work for the “complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” and announced they would work with the US and China this year to declare an official end to the 1950s Korean War.

Mr Kim seemed happy to meet Moon, at times laughing with him and at others listening intently.

At one point, Mr Kim joked that North Korea’s early morning missile launches had likely awakened Mr Moon numerous times, and promised not to do that any more, officials said.

Mr Kim also said he had heard impressive things about South Korean express trains, and told Mr Moon that he would probably find North Korea’s train system “inconvenient” by comparison.