Kim Jong Un’s latest overtures follow pattern of attempted switch to international decorum

In a break from previous practices, Ri Sol Ju joins her husband Kim Jong Un at a dinner banquet
 held in Pyongyang with the South Korean special envoy on March 5. Image: KCTV

As South Korea prepares for next month’s summit between President Moon Jae In and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, analysts and commentators are widely speculating that Kim’s top priority will be to attain recognition for his country as a legitimate member of the international community.

Observers have noted that since Kim took power, he has given a number of signals suggesting a desire to conform to more standard international etiquette when dealing with other countries.

One example of this came during the recent visit to Pyongyang by a team of South Korean special envoys, where Kim Jong Un personally hosted a dinner banquet for his South Korean guests. The attendance of Kim Jong Un’s wife Ri Sol Ju was considered an attempt to follow international diplomatic norms for such dinners, and was a glaring departure from the habits of his father Kim Jong Il, whose wife was absent from previous inter-Korean summit banquets.

Another major difference is that while Kim Jong Il hosted his South Korean guests at the Paekhwawon State Guest House in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un went a step further by inviting the special delegation into his office in the main building of the Korean Workers’ Party – an unprecedented gesture for North Korea, but in keeping with norms of international diplomacy.

The North Korean state-run media has also notably changed the tone
of language it is using. On March 6, one day after the special envoy’s
visit, state newspaper Rodong Sinmun ran an article on page six about
North Korea-US relations written under the name Ra Myung Song, where the
author refers to North Korea as “our country.” Previously, it was
standard to refer to the country as “our republic” or “our Joseon (North
Korea),” but the use of “our country” is a change that is more in line
with the language typically used in South Korean media to refer to one’s
own country, and may be a sign that the North is trying to shed its
‘pariah state’ image.

But evidence of the North’s attempts to change its image also date back to the early years of Kim Jong Un’s rule.

Kim Jong Un and wife Ri Sol Ju descend boarding stairs from a private jet in May 2014, the first time such a scene
was published in North Korea. Image: Rodong Sinmun

The familiar image of a country’s leader and spouse descending the stairs of a private jet on a tarmac is one associated with many nations around the globe, but was not an image that could be seen in North Korea – until Kim Jong Un became the first North Korean leader to feature in one. North Korean media at the time aired images and video of a large ceremony greeting the arrival of the leader’s jet, with Kim and Ri exiting a private plane and waving to the crowd on their way to attend a major aviation demonstration in May 2014. Kim Jong Un’s use of a private jet was also a departure from his father’s paranoid insistence on only traveling by train.

The inspection of the staircase by an army guard prior to Kim exiting the plane was also shown in the media. “The scene was meant to display Kim’s solid place at the top of the country’s power structure while at the same time show that North Korea was a ‘normal nation,'” one North Korea expert told Daily NK on condition of anonymity.

Kim Jong Un and Ri Sol Ju stand during the national anthem played before a performance by the Moranbong
Band on May 16, 2014. Political songs praising the leader are typically played before such events, rather than
the national anthem. Image: KCTV

Kim Jong Un also attended the “9th National Meeting of Artists” days later on May 16, 2014, which opened with the national anthem before a performance by the Moranbong Band. The audience, including Kim Jong Un and wife Ri, all stood and turned towards a large North Korean flag on the stage for the duration of the anthem.

This was the first time that the anthem – usually saved for international sporting contests – was played during such an event in North Korea, where it was previously standard to play “Song of the General Kim Il Sung,” “Song of the General Kim Jong Il,” or another political song personally praising the leader of the country. The change was again seen by some as an attempt to mimic the decorum followed by other countries.

In a conversation with Daily NK on March 15, Oh Gyeong Seop of the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) said he believes that “Kim Jong Un is trying to display the same formalities as other major nations, following ‘global standards’ in an attempt to present his country as just a nation like any other.”

However, Oh says there is a major difference between acting like a legitimate nation and actually being one. “First, they have to have a sincere and actionable plan to denuclearize. Second, they have to improve human rights to the point that they acceptable under UN guidelines. Finally, they will only be able to gain the trust of the international community if they put an end to illicit activities such as producing and selling illegal drugs, weapons, and counterfeit currency.”