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What To Know About North And South Korea's Leaders Ahead Of Their Summit


A historic summit between the leaders of North and South Korea will be happening tomorrow. It will be the first time the two men will meet face to face. Even though the North Korean regime is the more mysterious, more remote country, its leader Kim Jong Un has in many ways captured the public imagination more deeply than South Korea's leader Moon Jae-in. There are movies and books about Kim and his family, but not so much for Moon.

So let's take a closer look at who these two men are and what their objectives might be in this upcoming summit. We're going to turn now to Jean Lee of the Woodrow Wilson Center, who has studied both of these men very closely. Welcome.

JEAN LEE: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: All right, so when I think of Kim Jong Un of North Korea, there's this persona that pops into my head. And admittedly it's probably a caricature, but I feel like people here in the U.S. can at least picture him. What about Moon? Can you just in very brief, broad brush strokes describe the image of Moon Jae-in in South Korea?

LEE: Moon Jae-in is a fascinating figure. He is not new to South Koreans. He was an aide to the late President Roh Moo-hyun, who was the South Korean leader who sat down with Kim Jong Un's father Kim Jong Il in 2007. He rose to popularity on this image of being a very humble man. One of the first things he did when he got into the presidential Blue House was say, the public is welcome. He went for walks and went out and said hello to people. He also - and this is a small detail, but as a dog owner I appreciate it.

CHANG: I'm one, too.

LEE: He brought in two rescue dogs. And this is a big deal in South Korea because they do love their designer dogs.

CHANG: (Laughter).

LEE: But made a point of bringing his rescue dogs into the...

CHANG: His mutts.

LEE: Exactly. Right. Mutts.

CHANG: Oh, I love that.

LEE: And so there are all these little details about Moon Jae-in that really captured the imaginations of the younger generation in South Korea.

CHANG: What are each man's key objectives going into this summit? I mean, how much do their objectives overlap?

LEE: They have some common goals. One of them will be to make a show of unity between the Korean people. For Kim Jong Un, this has been a very consistent policy in North Korea, this working toward reunification and a sense of unity with the Korean people. What the undertone here is - let's show that we don't need the United States or any other foreign influence - that's not what Moon Jae-in is saying.

CHANG: Right.

LEE: What Moon Jae-in needs to do is slightly different. He needs to get the people of South Korea onboard with this idea of reconciliation. And some of these efforts at outreach that we've seen this year, it's part of that.

CHANG: What about people back home in both countries? What do they need to see come out of this summit for this to be perceived as a win for both leaders?

LEE: So for Kim Jong Un, simply meeting with world leaders gives him massive propaganda points. This meeting, the photos of their handshake will go down in history in North Korea. It will become part of their ideology. And of course the anticipated summit with Donald Trump will be part of that as well. Just by sitting down with these leaders he will win some propaganda points. As for President Moon, he wants to talk about denuclearization. And so that's going to be a tricky conversation.

CHANG: Yeah.

LEE: He is also going to want to lay the ground for the anticipated summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un.

CHANG: Sure.

LEE: And, you know, he's in an incredibly important position right now. He will be able to tell Donald Trump who Kim Jong Un is. And so it's an incredibly important summit for us to watch and for Donald Trump to watch. And for him to be able to learn some insider information about who Kim Jong Un is and what he wants before he goes into that summit with him in May or June.

CHANG: Jean Lee directs the Korea program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Thank you very much for joining us.

LEE: It was great to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO'S "OH, GOOD GRIEF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.