Kim Jong Un, the 33-year-old leader of North Korea, is on the verge of making his isolated, impoverished nation one of very few in the world that can hit the United States with a nuclear-armed missile.
SEOUL, South Korea — In China, the man threatening to fire missiles at the United States is often derided as a chubby brat. In the United States, 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 Jong Il. 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, Kim is on the verge of making his isolated, impoverished nation one of very few in the world that can hit the United States with a nuclear-armed missile — defying not only the Trump administration but also international sanctions and North Korea’s allies in Beijing.
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Some have urged Trump to open negotiations with him. But it is unclear whether Kim is interested in talking or what, if anything, he might demand in exchange for freezing or abandoning his nuclear program. He has made building a nuclear arsenal a top priority, arguing that it is the only way the North can guarantee its security and develop its economy.
His ultimate motives, like many details of his life, are uncertain. Since taking power, Kim has yet to travel abroad or host a visit from another state leader. Only a few people outside North Korea have been allowed to meet with him — the former basketball star Dennis Rodman, a Japanese sushi chef, the vice presidents of Cuba and China.
What little is known of Kim’s record suggests ruthlessness — and some ideological flexibility.
South Korean intelligence officials say Kim has executed scores of senior officials, including his own uncle, a wily power broker who had been seen as his mentor. He is also assumed to have ordered the assassination of his half brother, who was poisoned by VX nerve agent in Malaysia in February.
Yet Kim is also credited with loosening state controls on the economy and engineering modest growth, and regaining some of the public…