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North Korean Leader, Known for His Bluster, Reveals Diplomatic Skills

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SEOUL, South Korea — He has never traveled abroad as North Korea’s supreme leader. Until this week, his close encounters with foreign guests had been limited to dignitaries from China, Cuba and Syria — and Dennis Rodman. He increasingly resembles his grandfather, a national deity, down to the coifed flattop, gregarious grin and rotund waist.

So when a delegation of South Korean officials arrived to visit they did not know what to expect from the leader, Kim Jong-un, a 34-year-old with a nuclear arsenal, who has remained an enigma even as his weapons tests have terrified the world.

The envoys, some old enough to be Mr. Kim’s father, were taken aback by his friendliness and “forthcoming and daring” responses during a Monday meeting in Pyongyang, the North’s capital, that exceeded four hours, according to South Korean officials.

They had worried that Mr. Kim would threaten a fragile détente if South Korea and the United States resumed joint military exercises next month. Previously, the North has responded to such drills with missile tests and shrill warnings of a nuclear strike on America.

“We hope you can make another bold decision so we can overcome this hurdle,” read a bullet point in the handwritten memo carried by the South’s chief delegate, Chung Eui-yong. An image of the memo was captured by the North’s state-run television.

Mr. Kim surprised the South Korean diplomats not only by accepting joint South Korean-United States military drills as a reality, but also by expressing a willingness to start negotiations with Washington on ending his nuclear weapons program. He also told them he would suspend all nuclear and ballistic missile tests while such talks were underway.

Mr. Kim beamed across the negotiating table at the South Korean delegation on Monday. Envoys said they were not prepared for him to be so “forthcoming and daring.”CreditKorean Central News Agency

It was an eye-catching debut for Mr. Kim in international diplomacy.

It was also a remarkable shift in tone at least, if not in strategy yet, by Mr. Kim just months after he raised fears of war on the Korean Peninsula with a series of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests.

Considered by many to be a ruthless dictator with an obsession for nuclear weapons and a penchant for killing disloyal aides and relatives, Mr. Kim was now presenting a different side by hosting the South Korean envoys, who came to appeal to him to change course.

For the first time, the South Korean officials were invited into the headquarters of Mr. Kim’s ruling Workers’ Party. Mr. Kim beamed across the negotiating table, while the guests appeared to hang on his every word.

His wife, Ri Sol-ju, was the first North Korean first lady to be introduced to South Korean guests.

When it was time for farewells after a night of talking and dining, Mr. Kim walked them out and sent them off with smiles and waves.

Mr. Chung and Suh Hoon, the director of the South’s National Intelligence Service, will brief Trump administration officials in Washington later this week about their meeting with Mr. Kim.

“As a leader of a rogue state, he is a tough case to deal with,” said Kim Sung-han, a former vice foreign minister of South Korea who teaches at Korea University in Seoul, the South’s capital. “He has the guts but also is very strong in details. He is ambitious and has a desire to win.”

Mr. Kim, who is just 34, surprised the much older South Korean diplomats by expressing his willingness to start negotiations on ending his nuclear weapons program.CreditThe Blue House

Mr. Kim’s portrayal of a seasoned diplomat began with a televised New Year’s Day speech, exchanging his dull Mao tunic for a snazzy gray Western suit as he reached out to South Korea to improve relations. That move was so successful it laid the groundwork for the South Korean visit this week.

North Korea’s news media gave zealous coverage to Mr. Kim as he presided over the roomful of reverential negotiators from the South. He also is set to travel to the border with South Korea for a summit meeting in late April with the South’s president, Moon Jae-in.

Former Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a veteran diplomatic envoy in American dealings with North Korea, said the South Koreans’ visit had yielded some important insights about Mr. Kim, not necessarily reassuring.

“I would say Kim Jong-un has been underestimated,” Mr. Richardson said. “He seems to be evolving into a strategic thinker with a game plan instead of a bomb thrower. He is now setting the agenda for any possible easing of tension in the peninsula. That’s what’s happened.”

While the South Korean guests may have been beguiled, Mr. Richardson said, “what we need to be worried about is this: Is he setting up a trap for all of us?”

Regardless what Mr. Kim may be seeking, it is clearly a change from the past six years.

Soon after taking power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011, Mr. Kim escalated his country’s standoff with the outside world by accelerating nuclear and missile tests.

Mr. Kim’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, was the first North Korean first lady to be introduced to South Korean guests.CreditKorean Central News Agency

He also moved swiftly to tighten his grip on the police state he had inherited, defying any hope that his studies as a teenager in Switzerland might make him more open to outside ways.

He executed scores of senior officials, including his uncle, to instill unquestioned fealty. He is believed to have ordered the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, his estranged half brother and the eldest son of his father, in Malaysia last year.

His spy agency, the General Bureau of Reconnaissance, is blamed for a hacking attack at Sony Pictures in 2014 as retaliation against “The Interview,” its satirical film based on a fictional plot to assassinate Mr. Kim.

North Korea is so hermetic that foreign intelligence agencies were not sure Mr. Kim was heir apparent until a few years before the death of his secretive and dour father.

Until the North’s state-run media carried photographs of Kim Jong-un, then in his 20s, attending a party meeting in September 2010, no outsider had seen him or any photos of him as an adult.

Toward the general public, Mr. Kim has cast himself as a “people loving” leader, one reminiscent of his grandfather and North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, officially revered as a godlike figure.

Once dismissed as a figurehead, Kim Jong-un, at only 33, is emerging as a powerful leader and a nuclear threat.Published OnCreditImage by Korean Central News Agency, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But so far he has never met another head of state. His most high-profile guest had been Mr. Rodman, a former professional basketball player who developed something of a bromance with Mr. Kim over his fondness for basketball, during visits in 2013 and 2014.

Mr. Kim’s agreement to denuclearization talks is no guarantee that North Korea will start dismantling its arsenal. Mr. Kim said he would give up nuclear weapons only when he felt no more military threats. Previous efforts all collapsed over the same hurdle.

The Trump administration has escalated economic pressure, backed by threats of military force, to deal with North Korea. President Trump has said he is open to talks “only under the right conditions,” and officials have insisted that the North first take actions to show sincerity.

Some analysts speculated that Mr. Kim’s charm cloaked a wily attempt to fend off sanctions and deflate talk of military action from Washington. With the United Nations banning major North Korean exports, including coal, fish and textiles, North Korea’s exports have plummeted in recent months, a potentially crippling economic blow.

“Either Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s resolution to be a nice guy is real or his smiles and soft messages for Seoul are a ploy for buying time and money to perfect his own nuclear posture review,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a Korea expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Although Mr. Moon, the South’s leader, has repeatedly called for dialogue with the North, relations were deadlocked until Mr. Kim used his New Year’s Day speech to propose an inter-Korean dialogue and offer to send athletes and cheerleaders to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Mr. Kim also sent his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, to meet Mr. Moon and invite him to a summit meeting.

American officials argued that their pressure campaign had forced Mr. Kim’s hand. Nikki R. Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, said last month, “Sending cheerleaders to Pyeongchang was a sign of desperation, not national pride.”

But Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said something else was at play: Kim Jong-un’s credible boast that he had a nuclear deterrent, giving him far more leverage with Washington and Seoul than his father ever possessed.

“We see him increasingly self-confident about what he is doing,” Mr. Koh said. “If we look at what has happened in the past couple months, it was Kim Jong-un who took the initiative in each key moment.”

Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Kim’s Arsenal Now Includes Diplomatic Charm. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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