SEOUL (Reuters) - With missile tests, nuclear threats and ruthless destruction of opponents, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been an ominous presence hanging over the South.
These days, however, customers at a cafe in the center of South Korea can find an image of the North Korean leader staring up at them from their coffee cups.
Since a beaming Kim held a summit in April with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the In & Out cafe in Jeonju city, three hours south of the capital Seoul, has been serving lattes decorated with frothy images of the two leaders.
A sign also offers customers the chance to take a photo and be featured on latte foam along with Kim and Moon.
“I watched the inter-Korean summit and was very impressed,” said owner Kim Jeong-il, who coincidentally shares his name with Kim Jong Un’s father. “My shop is named ‘In & Out,’ and I made (the latte) praying for peace in the hope that we would be able to go ‘in and out’ of South Korea and North Korea.”
Few other businesses seem to be willing to risk using Kim’s image, but in the wake of the April summit, where Kim came across as an affable young man, more South Koreans are changing attitudes toward a leader who has threatened to destroy Seoul.
Besides raining invective on the South and its leaders since he took power in Pyongyang in 2011, Kim has been accused of ordering the killing of his uncle and half-brother and of scores of officials suspected of disloyalty.
According to a Gallup Korea survey released on June 1, Kim’s overall favorability among South Koreans rose from 10 percent in March to 31 percent in May. An earlier Gallup Korea survey conducted after the April summit showed that 65 percent of respondents had a more favorable view of Kim after the summit than before.
Kim’s popularity in South Korea is likely to have increased even more ahead of a summit next week with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore.
Moon told Kim during a second inter-Korean summit in May that the North Korean leader had “gained a lot of popularity in South Korea recently,” to which Kim responded: “That is a relief.”
In the past, South Korea has blocked some web sites and arrested and even prosecuted citizens under a security law that bans “praising, encouraging, or propagandizing” North Korean entities.
As recently as 2013, more than 100 people were arrested under the law, although the U.S-government funded Freedom House says that number dropped to seven last year.
That, along with Kim’s reputation, may make many businesses think twice about trying to capitalize on the buzz.
But the Gym88 kickboxing gym in Seoul has been using Kim’s image for two years, albeit in a not very complimentary way.
“You’ve got to lose some weight too,” says the banner for the gym, which shows a photograph of the portly North Korean leader next to a bikini-clad woman.
A trainer who declined to be named said that despite the law and emotional opinions of Kim, there had been no criticism of the gym since it put up the banner.
Analysts say Kim went out of his way to defuse hostility during his recent appearances, and image consultant Park Young-sil says that he “made the most effective use of the power of the smile through this inter-Korean summit.”
Kim Jong Un “strategically chose air-kisses during the second meeting in order to express how he feels psychologically closer to Moon based on mutual trust,” she said.
Not everyone is happy with the more positive image of Kim in the South.
The North Korean leader is a “demon,” said Kim Sang-jin, a former South Korean soldier turned anti-North Korea protester.
The South Korean government and the press is “fooling the citizens” and emphasizing only the soft side of Kim in order to make the U.S.-North Korea summit happen and put on “a fake peace show,” Kim Sang-jin said.
At his cafe in Jeonju, meanwhile, Kim Jeong-il said some anti-communist critics had complained about his Kim Jong Un-themed coffee, but overall the response had been positive, with around 20 people a day specifically looking for the Kim latte.
Reporting by Jeongmin Kim and Hyun Young Yi; Editing by Josh Smith and Raju Gopalakrishnan