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Intelligence Analyst Weighs In On Videos Of The North And South Korean Leaders


Images of Kim Jong Un are rare enough that American intelligence agencies carefully analyze each one, looking for insights into the leader and how he might behave. So the live video of North Korea's leader at this summit will likely be scrutinized for weeks. Mieke Eoyang is a national security expert with the think tank Third Way, and she also worked on the House Intelligence Committee. Thanks for joining us.

MIEKE EOYANG: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: How unusual is it to see this much unfiltered, uninterrupted video footage of Kim Jong Un?

EOYANG: It's very rare. The North Korean government is very careful about what they release, and they only release very carefully staged images of him.

SHAPIRO: So in a video like this, what are intelligence agencies going to be looking for?

EOYANG: They're looking for his reactions. They're looking for his demeanor. They'll assess his size and weight - right? - try to get a sense of sort of how he's doing. They'll watch his movements, and they'll see how he interacts with people around him.

SHAPIRO: As you look at it, as a casual observer who has some (laughter) expertise in this area, does anything stand out to you?

EOYANG: It was very clear to me that he was trying to project someone who was at ease and a warm relationship with his South Korean counterpart. The images that were released from this are trying to send a message to both countries of unity and of commonality.

SHAPIRO: Not to be shallow, but because you did mention size, weight, et cetera, was there anything like, oh, he's shorter than he looks on TV, or he's - I don't know - seems like he's lost weight or anything like that?

EOYANG: So he's a fairly robust figure, which is very rare for North Korea, given the food shortages that they've experienced over many years. So he's...

SHAPIRO: Robust meaning large.

EOYANG: Robust meaning large. He is heavier than most Asians. And that shows that he, unlike most of North Korea, is very well-fed, and he enjoys eating. So that suggests a certain comfort with luxury, which is one of the things that the U.S. has been very concerned about, stemming the flow of luxury goods to North Korea.

SHAPIRO: As you mentioned, North Korea's Information Ministry regulates images of the leader so strictly. Did you see any signs that, even in this summit, North Korea was trying to manipulate how Kim Jong Un was perceived?

EOYANG: I think it's very clear that they and the South Koreans worked very closely to try and frame the images the world got to see. The images of them stepping across the boundaries of the two countries, sitting together at the end of this bridge, it's all designed to project certain images. And those were worked out in advance probably at a staff level long before the two leaders got to this moment.

SHAPIRO: Do you think this footage of Kim Jong Un teaches us anything about him that we didn't previously know or adds to our understanding in a significant way?

EOYANG: I think that they are trying very hard to counteract an image of Kim Jong Un as a crazy, erratic leader and trying to project that he is calm and friendly so that they can try and reduce tensions on the peninsula and over this crisis more generally.

SHAPIRO: Ahead of a possible summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, how do you think the people prepping the U.S. president might be using this footage?

EOYANG: I think that they will use this footage to get a sense of how carefully the North Koreans want to stage things, get a sense of how he reacts to different kinds of handshakes. Handshakes with the American president are very important. And I think that they're going to want to get a sense of how they do something different than the South Koreans. The goal for the U.S. in this upcoming summit is very different than what the South Koreans have been trying to achieve. South Koreans are trying to project reconciliation and unity as being part of one peninsula. The U.S. has a very different aim here.

SHAPIRO: Mieke Eoyang is a national security analyst with the think tank Third Way. Thanks for joining us today.

EOYANG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.