Korean Leaders Seek to Control Optics 04/25 06:44
Kim Jong Un will be in uncharted territory when the third-generation
autocrat crosses over to the southern half of the Demilitarized Zone separating
the rival Koreas on Friday, possibly on foot, and greets South Korean President
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- Kim Jong Un will be in uncharted territory when
the third-generation autocrat crosses over to the southern half of the
Demilitarized Zone separating the rival Koreas on Friday, possibly on foot, and
greets South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Cameras wielded by one of the most aggressive media contingents on the
planet will fire live images of a man used to controlling every aspect of his
public persona into the homes and onto the phones of millions of people around
the world --- though it's not yet clear if it will be seen instantly in North
But as Kim navigates this minefield (figuratively; he's not passing through
that part of the DMZ) at the third-ever leadership summit between the rivals,
he may actually have an ally of sorts in Moon.
Despite an announcement that some bits of the summit will be shown live, and
the possibility of a joint news conference, Moon seems intent on keeping the
North Korean leader at ease, and an aggressive local media at bay, while
engineering a summit meant to move the Koreas from what seemed like the brink
of war last year to the engagement that the liberal Moon has always dreamed of.
This mindset could make it hard for Moon --- keen on creating a
legacy-defining moment that will set up Kim's summit with President Donald
Trump in the coming weeks --- to resist whatever media controls the North
"The South Korean government is so anxious and invested to ensure the
Kim-Trump summit happens, and isn't a failure, that acceding to media
choreography is a very small price to pay when Kim and Moon meet," Vipin
Narang, a Koreas specialist at MIT, said by email. "If Kim asks for it, I don't
see the South Koreans pushing back too hard."
At home, thousands of people work to craft Kim's image. Even when Kim
traveled to China earlier this month, the self-censoring Chinese media and the
autocratic government in Beijing helped cloak the trip in secrecy; the North
then later packaged a sanitized video presentation of the visit for
While Kim may not be able to control every aspect of what happens on the
South Korean side of the DMZ, Seoul seems eager to make sure things go
smoothly, even preparing a banquet that includes dishes from Switzerland, where
Kim studied during his teens.
Seoul also planned three days of extensive, closed-door dress rehearsals,
one of them involving North Korean officials, leading up to the summit Friday.
The information the world receives will likely be closely controlled: Except
for a group of pool reporters at the summit, whose access may be extremely
limited, journalists will be sequestered at a media center well away from
heavily guarded Panmunjom, the border village where the summit will take place.
"I'm sure part of the ground rules for the North-South meeting will be tight
controls on the South Korean press," Ralph Cossa, president of Pacific Forum
CSIS and a longtime Koreas expert, said in an email. "Besides that, Pyongyang
will have total control over how the meeting is portrayed in the North so the
risk is minimal. Kim Jong Un seems to exude great self-confidence so he may
think he is prepared to take on the South Korean press, but I assume he and his
handlers will be very cautious on this point."
Moon, ahead of the summit, has faced media reports that his government
allegedly pressured prominent defectors and conservative analysts to stay out
of the press, presumably because they might anger the North, which keeps a
close eye on such things --- accusations the government in Seoul has strongly
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa seemed to indicate that Seoul
won't raise at the summit what the U.N. says is Kim's pattern of starving and
abusing his people, despite being pressed by activists to do so, when she told
reporters that to "include the (human rights) issue in the inter-Korean
dialogue now is something that will require more preparation."
And in what critics took as an attempt to muzzle dissent, Moon this week
asked "that our political circles halt their political warfare at least during
"It is understandable that Seoul wants to avoid annoying Pyongyang ahead of
the April 27 inter-Korean summit. But in order for its policy to work, the
government must open its ears to various voices on North Korea," the
conservative Korea JoongAng Daily recently wrote. "The president cannot push
ahead with (his) rapprochement policy if (he) does not gain support from the
people. Many conservatives believe the government is too soft toward Pyongyang."