UPDATE : 2018.9.26 WED 10:44
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North Korean leader steps up charm offensive, crafts image as peace driver

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Friday blurred the line of the peninsula's decades-long division by inviting his South Korean counterpart to cross the border together hand in hand, in a symbolic move to position him as a key driver of reconciliation and peace.

The impromptu gesture before their landmark summit quickly narrowed the yawning psychological gulf between the two Koreas, which have been separated only by the 50-centimeter-wide Military Demarcation Line since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

In front of photographers and reporters jostling to capture his historic rendezvous with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the truce village of Panmunjom, Kim exuded confidence with broad smiles that belied his underlying nervousness and provocative bent.

"I feel that (we) have fired a flare at the starting point ... the moment of writing a new history vis-a-vis peace, prosperity and North-South relations," Kim said before talks with Moon at the House of Peace, a South Korea-controlled building just south of the border.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks during a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the border truce village of Panmunjom on April 27, 2018. (Yonhap)

Flanked by top army and party officials, the 30-something leader intimated unchallenged authority at home, while apparently seeking to seize on the limelight to shed his negative persona built through years of nuclear and missile provocations, and menacing rhetoric.

Playing to the domestic gallery, Kim might want to position himself -- not Moon -- as the core initiator of cross-border trust, reconciliation and peace, while casting his country as a "normal" socialist state rather than an isolated pariah, experts said.

"For the domestic audience, Kim might seek to highlight that he is a leader strong and capable enough to take on the president of Asia's fourth largest economy," Park Hyeong-jung, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, told Yonhap News Agency.

The dynastic ruler may also strive to use the keen media attention to cultivate an image different from a "short, fat Rocket Man on a suicide mission," a derisive nickname that U.S. President Donald Trump coined for Kim's proclivity for saber-rattling, the scholar added.

Inside his tightly-controlled country, Kim has been seen striving to craft a public persona as a strong yet avuncular leader, with state media highlighting scenes of him giving piggybacks to military scientists and walking hand in hand with others.

Kim's border crossing was a culmination of his peace offensive that started with sports diplomacy at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February, and gained traction with his summit with Moon and the planned tete-a-tete with Trump in May or June.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un cross the inter-Korean border at the Joint Security Area of Panmunjom on April 27, 2018 for a meeting with Moon that will mark the third inter-Korean summit. (Yonhap)

Kim's peace drive was also a reflection of his eagerness to lift his country out of its economic doldrums amid incremental international sanctions.

As witnessed in his ruling party's recent adoption of a "new strategic line" on economic reconstruction, shoring up the debilitated economy remains a core legacy task for the young leader who has so far focused on consolidating power by purging rivals and dissidents, and advancing his nuclear program.

Shoring up the debilitated economy remains the only unfinished part of the three-pronged vision to become an "economically, ideologically and militarily strong" nation. The North claims it has already become a powerful nation ideologically with its ideology of "juche," or self-reliance, and militarily with the "nuclear button" on Kim's desk.

His trip across the border was a rare opportunity for the media to scrutinize the reclusive leader who was thrust to the center of power in late 2011 upon the death of his late father and longtime strongman Kim Jong-il.

Despite his scarce exposure to the media during the Beijing summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in his first known overseas trip last month, Kim remains an enigmatic ruler with little information about his true character, leadership chops and statesmanship.

According to reports and intelligence sources, Kim was born to Ko Yong-hui, a dancer from Japan, in 1984 and schooled in Switzerland for some six years from 1996 -- a reason why he is known to be fluent in German and well-versed in Western culture.

Back home, Kim is said to have graduated from the Kim Il Sung Military University -- named after the North's state founder and his late grandfather -- in Pyongyang and briefly served as part of the rank-and-file military staff to apparently hone basic combat skills.

According to the reported accounts of his onetime Japanese chef, Kenji Fujimoto, a young Kim was a basketball enthusiast who carefully strategized winning any match, and burst into a rage when defeated.

Kim was only in his late 20s when he rose to power following just a few years of grooming. His father, Kim Jong-il, had about two decades of leadership training before taking the reins of the country in 1994.

In the course of his power consolidation, Kim has exposed his brutal nature. He executed Jang Song-thaek, a once powerful uncle, for plotting to overthrow his regime in December 2013. The execution followed the mysterious assassination of his long-estranged half brother, Jong-nam, in Malaysia in February last year.

Until late last year, Kim's provocative tack raised the fears of war. Trump warned that he would rain down "fire and fury" on and "totally destroy" it if necessary to defend his country and its allies. Kim hit back later, calling Trump a "deranged dotard" and boasting of his "nuclear button."

The escalatory threats of war subsided from January amid a detente the South Korean president fostered in time for the Winter Games.

Kim Sua  edt@koreapost.com

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