South Koreans captivated by 'cute' Kim

Historic inter-Korean summit offered first chance to get a close look at the North's authoritarian leader

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Peace House at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018.   Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuters
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South Koreans watched raptly on Friday as history unfolded and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader they normally only see in heavily edited footage, walked across the border and had his every word broadcast live and unfiltered across the country.

From train platforms to tech forums, South Koreans took a pause from their normal routines to get a glimpse of Mr Kim as he became the first North Korean leader to visit South Korean territory. Major South Korean television networks cancelled their usual programming for wall-to-wall coverage of the inter-Korean summit with President Moon Jae-in.

"I can't believe I'm listening to the voice of Kim Jong-un. Someone I have only seen as jpg is speaking now," Lee Yeon-su wrote on Twitter, referring to a common image format.

A man watches television screens, showing a broadcast of Kim Jong Un, North Korea's leader, left, and Moon Jae-in, South Korea's president shaking hands during a meeting in Panmunjeom prior to the summit, at Yongsan Electronic Market in Seoul, South Korea, on Friday, April 27, 2018. Kim on Friday became the first North Korean leader to enter South Korea since the peninsula was divided almost seven decades ago as talks begin over dismantling his nuclear weapons program. Photographer: Jean Chung/Bloomberg

It is a dramatic change for South Koreans, who under the National Security Act are banned on threat of jail from accessing media considered pro-North Korean. Websites for the North's official Korean Central News agency and Rodong Shinmun newspaper, which regularly publish propaganda images of Mr Kim, are blocked in South Korea.

South Koreans used the rare opportunity of seeing raw footage of the North Korean leader to speculate on everything from his speech habits to his health. Some even said they found Mr Kim cute.

"Most South Koreans probably heard his voice for the first time. I found his way of speaking friendly, like a guy living next door," said Ryu Seok-woo, a reporter at a local news outlet who did not cover the summit.

Some noted that the reclusive leader, who rules his country unquestioned, seemed to drone on and on in his first speech. They speculated that he had never been stopped or interrupted when speaking before.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in plant a pine tree near the military demarcation line at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea, Friday, April 27, 2018. North Korean leader Kim made history by crossing over the world's most heavily armed border to greet South Korean President Moon for talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons. (Korea Summit Press Pool via AP)

There was a moment many South Koreans noted when Mr Kim made an off-the-cuff comment about naengmyeon, cold buckwheat noodles that are a North Korean delicacy popular among South Koreans, that were to be served at Mr Kim and Mr Moon's dinner meeting.

"Pyongyang naengmyeon that came from afar. Ah, I shouldn't say it's from afar," Mr Kim said before the two leaders started their morning meeting.

He appeared to be making a joke about the distance between the two countries. The remarks, which did not seem to fit with the intimidating image most South Koreans have of Mr Kim, went viral on social media as people shared them in disbelief and even suggested he had a future in comedy.

"I thought he had a sense of humour. He's certainly different from his father's generation," said Lee Seung-won, an office worker. "I thought I would never see such scene before I die."

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un walks from the North to the Military Demarcation Line that divides the two Koreas to meet with his South Korean counterpart at the truce village of Panmunjom on April 27, 2018.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the South's President Moon Jae-in sat down to a historic summit on April 27 after shaking hands over the Military Demarcation Line that divides their countries in a gesture laden with symbolism. / AFP PHOTO / Korea Summit Press Pool / Korea Summit Press Pool

As Mr Kim walked a few hundred metres from the border and climbed some stairs to the Peace House where the summit is taking place, some of those watching questioned whether the heavyset young leader was physically struggling. When Kim was leaving a message in the guest book, his shoulders appeared to be moving up and down as if he was panting.

"He probably doesn't walk a lot and seemed to be having a hard time," said homemaker Cho Jin-joo, noting that such a common struggle made him seem real. "Before I found him intimidating on the news but today I felt like he was much more human," she said.

Some were sympathetic to Mr Kim.

"Ah, Kim Jong-un panting hard after walking that much. It strikes a chord with people who don't like walking," said Kim Somi.

Between Mr Kim's jokes and big smiles, some on social media and elsewhere said the rival leader looked cute.

"He was so different from what I saw on the news in the past. He looked friendly. I thought he looked like a teddy bear," said office worker Yang Hae-ra.

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