SINGAPORE—This week, North Koreans were introduced to a man named
Donald J. Trump,
who flew to this city-state to meet with their respected Supreme Leader,
Kim Jong Un.
Prior to this, they had known the U.S. president simply as “Trump,” who was described in the North Korean press last year as “senile,” “a living corpse” and, in one infamous turn of phrase, a “dotard.” As recently as March 6 this year, he was referred to in the country’s largest newspaper simply as “Trump, the nuclear warmonger.”
But on Monday, North Korea’s main party newspaper began referring to him as “Donald J. Trump, president of the United States of America.”
“It’s quite a sudden change,” says
a North Korea researcher at Seoul National University who closely studies the paper and other North Korean media outlets.
As rapprochement between the U.S. and North Korea gains momentum, North Korea has seized the public relations moment, depicting the summit between Messrs. Trump and Kim as a historic meeting of equals in which Mr. Kim more than held his own and suggesting that the North Korean leader may be savvier about spin than his familial predecessors.
Messrs. Trump and Kim, who had exchanged insults and threats throughout most of 2017, have hitched their fortunes together. Mr. Trump has begun referring to a man he once derided as “Little Rocket Man” by his more formal title, “Chairman Kim Jong Un.”
But the more dramatic transformation may be within North Korea, which exercises a great deal of control over the message that its citizens receive—and has been unrelenting in its skewering of U.S. leaders for decades.
“The tone is unlike anything that they have used to refer to any sitting U.S. president since the Korean War—I cannot think of one exception,” Mr. Ward said.
North Korea has a number of newspapers, many of them tied to the country’s various state and party institutions, but for the most part, they share a familiar message. First among equals, however, is the Rodong Sinmun, the organ of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.
On Wednesday, the paper splashed pictures of Messrs. Trump and Kim across its front page, offering what
director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, a U.S.-based human rights nonprofit, said was likely the first glimpse that any North Korean has yet had of Mr. Trump—at least in state-sanctioned media. Many of them, Mr. Park said, wouldn’t even have known Mr. Trump’s first name until Wednesday.
The photos were striking for another reason, he said: They portrayed Mr. Kim as on a par with, or in some cases the superior of, Mr. Trump.
In most of the photos published in the party newspaper, Mr. Trump is pictured reaching across and leaning toward Mr. Kim in a position that suggested obeisance, Mr. Ward said.
“My interpretation of the images is that they make Trump look slightly deferential to Kim Jong Un,” he said. “They are portraying Kim as the person in charge here.”
The language was no less striking, going beyond what Mr. Trump himself had said during a news briefing on Tuesday following their summit.
At least according to the North Korean account, Mr. Trump acceded to Mr. Kim’s call for the U.S. to pare back military exercises, and also expressed his intention to lift sanctions targeting Pyongyang, during their four-hour summit at the Capella Singapore hotel. Mr. Trump told reporters during his news briefing that he was planning to hold the line on sanctions against North Korea, saying the U.S. still had “tremendous pressure” to keep economic penalties in place.
“This is effectively a press release from Kim Jong Un’s office, and it portrays him as having the leading role and Donald Trump making concessions to him,” Mr. Park said. “Everything is coming from a position of strength and reasonableness.”
The North Korean report quoted Mr. Trump as crediting Mr. Kim’s “proactive peace-loving measures” for having created the atmosphere of peace this year—not the president’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Pyongyang—and said the two leaders accepted each other’s invitations to visit their respective countries.
The report also suggested that Mr. Trump had adopted the North’s preferred phased approach toward any denuclearization process, saying the two men had agreed to the “principle of step-by-step and simultaneous action.” There was no such language in the agreement, and Mr. Trump made no such mention in his news conference afterward.
The North Korean report emphasized the equal standing of the two countries, describing the positioning of the two countries’ flags. It also said the two men were able to enjoy “deepening friendly feelings” during a short stroll together.
Mr. Kim’s impromptu night tour of Singapore, too, got lavish coverage in the North Korean press, complete with photos of Mr. Kim visiting some of the prosperous city’s best-known sights, giving North Koreans a close-up look at one of the world’s most advanced cityscapes.
The message to the North Korean public, said
Hoo Chiew Ping,
a senior lecturer and North Korea expert at the National University of Malaysia, was: “Kim Jong Un was very much welcome in Singapore—he’s like a celebrity.”
North Korea’s media, under Mr. Kim, is also telling its people about the leader’s movements and actions without a customary delay of several days in reporting, a move analysts say is more daring and immediate than those of his father, Kim Jong Il.
Relatively unscripted moments—like Mr. Kim’s night tour and his secret summit meeting with South Korean President
at the inter-Korean demilitarized zone last month—underscored the young North Korean leader’s openness and willingness to take risks with his image, said
a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.
“This is not in the playbook,” Mr. Delury said.
Write to Jonathan Cheng at firstname.lastname@example.org