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Kim Jong Un’s New Look Is More Man Than Superhuman

SEOUL—For decades, North Korea’s ruling Kims portrayed themselves as quasi-gods, incapable of error.

Now, as the country faces some of its toughest challenges in years on several fronts, leader Kim Jong Un is taking a different approach. He is showing himself to be fallible—even human.

With the country contending with the coronavirus pandemic, flood damage and economic sanctions, Mr. Kim is apologizing, admitting policy missteps and visiting disaster zones. He has ordered officials to stop “mythicizing” his family as it could “hide the truth,” according to state media.

Mr. Kim’s break with tradition was evident last week when he quickly apologized over the North Korean killing of a South Korean civil servant, just a day after Seoul officials demanded a response. Pyongyang rarely atones with such directness or speed.

The outward expressions of humility aren’t a sign of weakness, security experts say, but rather an indication that Mr. Kim sees himself as operating from a position of strength, as he sits atop a nuclear arsenal that he claims can strike the U.S. mainland. It also suggests the Kim regime won’t be in a rush to rekindle nuclear talks with the U.S. to win economic relief, they say.

A propaganda poster from 2008 depicts former President Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, as an ‘eternal sun.’

Photo: Eric LAFFORGUEGamma-Rapho/Getty Images

“One thing is certain. North Korea has stopped portraying its leader as godlike under Kim Jong Un,” said Cheon Seong-whun, a former South Korean national security official. “Because he can afford to.”

During a visit to flood-hit areas in August, Mr. Kim told his people that his economic growth plans had run into unexpected “deviations and shortcomings,” promising a new five-year plan by early next year.

Mr. Kim appears to be trying to cast himself as a relatable leader to ordinary citizens, North Korea watchers say. It is also part of the dictator’s broader push to build a process-driven government that can rely less on the Kim family’s alleged divinity.

Kim Jong Un inspects buildings rebuilt after flooding in the village of Kangbuk-ri in North Hwanghae Province, in this image released Sept. 14.

Photo: kcna/Reuters

Since taking power in 2011, Mr. Kim has reinstituted regular gatherings of the country’s top governing bodies, which had been largely suspended under his father. More recently, he has delegated specific policies and sectors to advisers, including his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong , as a way of sharing responsibilities, North Korea experts said.

“Is it political window dressing? Yes. Is it now a South Korean-style democracy? No,” said Michael Madden , an expert on North Korean leadership and a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank. “But Kim Jong Un is trying to ‘normalize’ North Korea as much as he can,” he said.

North Korea for much of its history hid behind Kim family hagiography and dealt with internal crises much differently. The leaders functioned under a “no-error principle,” said Koh Yu-hwan , head of the Korea Institute for National Unification, a South Korean government think tank.

“Since they were gods, it was impossible for them to commit errors,” Mr. Koh said.

Kim Jong Un famously appeared riding a white horse on Mount Paektu, said to be the birthplace of his father, in this October 2019 photo.

Photo: Yonhap News/Zuma Press

The country’s founder and Mr. Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung , could levitate and turn pine cones into bullets and grenades while fighting Japan in World War II, state propaganda claimed. His base of operations against Japanese forces was Mount Paektu, which has been used to deify the Kims, with his descendants being referred to as the “Paektu bloodline.” North Korean propaganda claims that shining stars filled the sky when his son, Kim Jong Il , was born on Mount Paektu.

Through the 1970s, North Korea was more economically prosperous than South Korea, giving Kim Il Sung some stability. But propaganda rarely, if ever, showed images of North Korea’s later economic turmoil as the regime teetered on the verge of collapse in the early 1990s, near the end of his rule. Propaganda claimed Kim Il Sung could control the weather, but there is little evidence he was able to do much to improve the situation through his policies.

No record shows his son, Kim Jong Il, touring regions hard-hit by flooding and famine after he took over in 1994. North Korean state media never fully reported on the crises, instead publishing images of Kim Jong Il roasting potatoes with comrades over a campfire.

North Korean founder Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il appear with children in this 2009 poster.

Photo: Eric LAFFORGUE/Corbis/Getty Images

Faced with economic hardship, Kim Jong Il avoided regime collapse by negotiating for economic aid from the U.S. and South Korea in return for promising to denuclearize—even though Pyongyang secretly kept enriching uranium and selling weapons to the Middle East.

In his early years in power, Kim Jong Un indulged in the family’s mythmaking. North Korean textbooks claimed he could drive a car at the age of 3 and won a yacht race at 9.

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But under Mr. Kim’s orders, the North’s main newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, admitted in May that Kim Il Sung didn’t have the power to levitate. In the same month, the newspaper argued in an editorial that propaganda now had to be more realistic.

Mr. Kim has made changes to the way the family is portrayed as more external information has seeped into the country. Mobile-phone use and cross-border smuggling are common, and many North Koreans secretly communicate with families who escaped to the South.

Meanwhile, the North Korean leader has put himself on a different footing than his predecessors. He has met with President Trump three times and, by his own account, the North completed its nuclear program more than two years ago. It is a point that he frequently mentions, including in a July speech.

“Thanks to our reliable and effective self-defense nuclear deterrence, the word ‘war’ would no longer exist on this land, and the security and future of our state will be guaranteed forever,” Mr. Kim said.

A far cry from hawkish newscasts and displays of the regime’s weapons arsenal, North Korea’s vloggers showcase a softer side of life in Pyongyang. Here’s how the country is revamping its propaganda machine to target new audiences who speak English, French and Chinese. Photo composite: Sharon Shi

Write to Andrew Jeong at andrew.jeong@wsj.com

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