A South Korean envoy risked the wrath of Kim Jong Un by telling him to kick his smoking habit during landmark talks, according to reports.
Mr Kim is a notoriously heavy smoker and his former spy chief was reportedly left frozen in terror when Chung Eui-yong, the director of the South Korean National Security Council, told him to consider quitting cigarettes during a conversation over dinner in Pyongyang last month.
Citing multiple government sources from North and South Korea, Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun reports that Mr Kim was asked: “How about stopping smoking? It’s bad for your health.”
Kim Yong-chol, the ex-head of national intelligence for North Korea, was said to be left terrified by how his leader might respond, with the young dictator said to be infamous among his staff for his short temper.
But Mr Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, was said to be amused by the blunt nature of the question.
“I always ask him to quit smoking, but he won’t listen to me,” she is reported to have responded.
The Korean Times’ report of the dinner speculates that Mr Chung felt comfortable asking the question because in Korea, age is still taken much like rank – the the older the person, the more senior they are.
Mr Chung is 71, whereas Mr Kim is 34.
Mr Kim is often seen in state media broadcasts and photos holding a lit cigarette, even during visits to hospitals and schools, and notably during the country’s nuclear tests.
Asahi Shimbun reported that his wife’s reaction to the apparent criticism helped lighten a potentially awkward moment, during what was the first visit by the South to their neighbours since December 2007.
It was part of a bid by Seoul to push for talks between Mr Kim’s regime and the US, and it appeared to prove successful, with Donald Trump later agreeing to meet his North Korean counterpart by May.
Mr Kim is said to be committed to the historic summit and to eventual denuclearisation, despite the two leaders having regularly traded threats and insults since Mr Trump took office.
The recent charm offensive by North Korea began with the visit of Mr Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, to the Winter Olympics hosted by Pyeongchang, which made her the first member of North Korea’s ruling family to travel to the South since the end of the Korean War.
Mr Kim has since met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and is also planning to meet South Korean leader Moon Jae-in.