SEOUL: In China, the man threatening to fire missiles at the US is often derided as a chubby brat. In the US, a senator recently referred to him as “this crazy fat kid”. President Donald Trump once called him “a total nut job”. But the target of all that scorn, Kim Jong-un, the 33-year-old leader of North Korea, has long been underestimated.
Kim was the youngest of three sons yet leapfrogged his brothers to succeed his father, Kim Jongil.
Many analysts dismissed him as an inexperienced figurehead when he took power at 27; some predicted he would never last. But almost six years later, there is little doubt he is firmly in control.
Now, against long odds, Kim is on the verge of making his isolated, impoverished nation one of very few in the world that can hit the US with a nuclear-armed missile.
Some have urged Trump to open negotiations with him. But it is unclear whether Kim is interested in talking. He has made building a nuclear arsenal a priority, arguing that it is the only way the North can guarantee its security and develop its economy.
South Korean intelligence officials say Kim has executed scores of senior officials, including his own uncle. “He learned how power works from early age,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies in Dongguk University in Seoul.
Kim has improved access to food and goods by allowing more market activities. He has also launched a building boom in Pyongyang, where the most loyal citizens are allowed to live.
But conditions remain dismal outside the capital, and further growth may require an end to the sanctions that limit the North’s ability to trade with the world. And that would mean giving up the nuclear programme.