In just a few hours, President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un will meet for the first time in a historic summit that could be the first step on the road to a more stable Korean Peninsula. But with Trump’s previous use of condescending nicknames like “Little Rocket Man” and labeling Kim Jong-un as a “smart cookie,” it’s possible that the president could enter the Singapore summit with the idea that he’s dealing with a tantrum-prone child rather than a shrewd dictator. This attitude could result in shallow negotiations at best, and a dangerous miscalculation at worst.
Trump isn’t the only one who tends to infantilize Kim Jong-un – it’s a trope that appears all too often in the mainstream media as well. Editorial cartoons have portrayed Kim as a pudgy child, sporting only his signature haircut and a diaper, wielding a pacifier with a radioactive sign plastered on its side, or a toddler in a navy Mao suit, playing with nuclear missiles.
These portrayals of North Korea’s not-so-young dictator as an infant or toddler have appeared in dozens of major publications around the world, giving their readership the idea that Kim is a silly child with a funny haircut who shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But now that Kim is going to become the first North Korean leader to meet a sitting U.S. president, we must not underestimate him or write him off, lest we allow him to completely drive the long process of negotiations that will hopefully follow from this initial summit.
Sure, at age 33, Kim is relatively young as world leaders go. But in fact, he has been in power for nearly six years, making him the longest-serving current leader in East Asia. When Kim Jong-un first took office after his father’s death in December 2011, many pundits and even experienced Korea-watchers expected him to have a hard time consolidating power and proving his worth as the successor of the Kim dynasty. Now, six years later, most experts agree that Kim Jong-un is firmly in charge of his regime and military, particularly after brutally ridding himself of powerful people loyal to his father, such as his uncle Jang Song-thaek. Far from being just a wailing child just acting out to get attention, Kim is a shrewd and merciless leader.
The fact is, Kim knows exactly what he’s doing. He has deftly implemented his Byungjin Line strategy of pursing military strength and nuclear weapons while developing the economy, therefore giving the upper-class citizens of Pyongyang just enough prosperity to keep them happy. He pushed his nuclear and missile tests back-to-back, right up until he had a credible deterrent, then immediately parlayed it into an invitation to the PyeongChang Olympics, multiple meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and even this summit in Singapore with Trump.
Kim is also cleverly taking advantage of the PR opportunities afforded by these major events. His sister, Kim Yo-jong (who is largely responsible for public messaging and propaganda for her brother) stole the show in PyeongChang, to the chagrin of many who pointed out her participation in a regime accused of various crimes against humanity. And when Kim met Moon for the first time on April 27, he displayed a disarming “aw shucks” attitude, joking about waking Moon up too early with his missile tests.
Kim Jong-un is not new to this, nor is he naïve. He knows exactly what he wants to get from this summit and the subsequent negotiations, and he has a strategy for how to get to that point. If Trump and his team underestimate Kim, seeing him merely as “Little Rocket Man,” he could end up taking advantage of this lowered guard. So whatever Trump does in Singapore, he must not underestimate the man sitting across from him.
Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at The Korea Economic Institute of America. She runs KEI’s media relations and outreach along with managing KEI’s online presence. Follow Jenna on Twitter at @jennargibson.