The man who presented himself to me had little in common with his popular image. He was friendly and charming and did everything he could to put me at ease. He answered all of my questions and took no offense at any of them. (He denied any ties to organized crime, though he was notably vague when I asked for details of his business operations. “Commercial secret,” he said, smiling.) His office decor reinforced the impression of a reasonable and thoughtful businessman. He was, apparently, a person of great piety: The wall behind his desk was covered with icons. There were also plaques commemorating his many charitable activities – one of them, I recall, from the Russian equivalent of the Police Benevolent Association.
In the end I wasn’t able to write up the story, for reasons too complicated to go into here. But the experience offered a vivid exercise in image management. If you’re a mobster, a fearsome reputation can bring dividends when you decide to put on a nice face for the public. You just have to defy expectations.
I thought of that encounter during a recent conversation with Sung-Yoon Lee, an expert on North Korea at Tufts University. He described North Korea as a “mafia state” – and he doesn’t mean that metaphorically. He pointed out that North Korea is the only country in the world that counterfeits currency and manufactures heroin and meth for sale in overseas markets – all as a matter of “official state policy.” And like the mafia, the Kim family regime also uses purges and assassinations as a way of deterring rivals.
But don’t forget the “state” part of Lee’s equation. Unlike a mob boss, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un can draw on the resources of an entire nation to back up his strategies of intimidation. Kim has used his nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to sow fear among the international community. The regime’s extreme rhetoric and erratic behavior have the effect of intensifying the sense that the North Korean leadership is frighteningly erratic and unpredictable. You can never be sure what this crazy guy is going to do next.
As Lee pointed out, though, this image of volatility is, in fact, carefully cultivated by the regime. He said that North Korea has a conscious strategy of “weaponizing its weirdness.” Yet despite their reputation for madness, the Kims know precisely how to turn on the charm when it counts. When Kim Jong Il, the present leader’s father, met U.S. officials, they all came away pleasantly relieved to discover that, in person, he was far from the raving lunatic they had imagined. Former Clinton administration official Wendy Sherman famously described Kim Jong Il as “smart, engaged, knowledgeable, self-confident.” And when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Kim Jong Un earlier this year, he characterized him as “personable and well-prepared.” As Lee said, “When you calm things down, you’re suddenly a global statesman.”
I have no doubt that Pompeo, a former CIA director, knows exactly what the Kim regime is like. As my colleague Jackson Diehl notes, few countries can compete with North Korea when it comes to massive violations of human rights. Kim presides over the most seamless police state in the world. He maintains a vast network of concentration camps. He has kept his people at a level of undernourishment comparable with the poorest countries in Africa. He executed his uncle (and, apparently, much of his uncle’s family), whom he considered a potential challenger. He had his own half-brother assassinated with a nerve agent in a Malaysian airport.
Yet Kim has already shown his great talent for whitewashing the true nature of his regime. Remember those adorable North Korean cheerleaders at the Olympics? Remember his masterful stagecraft when he met South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the inter-Korean border?
And you can bet he will be turning the charm on full throttle for his meeting with the U.S. president. Lee has a prediction for the summit. Trump, he says, will go into the negotiations assuming that he has the upper hand over the eccentric young dictator. The two – who have a lot of personal similarities – will bond, jokingly dismissing all the past insults that they’ve cast at each other. “Trump will come away convinced that he has made some deep emotional connection to the North Korean leader,” said Lee. “That he read his soul, that they really understand each other.” And both sides will claim victory – even if the agreement they conclude turns out be utterly devoid of substance.
But Kim will undoubtedly benefit the most – simply because he’ll have met with the American president, thus vastly boosting his own stature and legitimacy. “Trump says he’s been preparing for this all his life, figuratively,” said Lee. “But Kim Jong Un really has been preparing for this moment all his life. This is a matter of life and death for North Korea.”