For weeks, American intelligence agencies puzzled over the mysterious disappearance of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator. Now Mr. Kim is back on the public stage — a walking stick in his left hand — and it is the State Department’s turn to puzzle.
A series of gestures by the North Korean leader, most dramatically the release this week of an imprisoned American tourist, Jeffrey E. Fowle, has raised hopes that after two and a half years of bellicose rhetoric, punctuated by periodic missile tests, Mr. Kim is groping for some kind of rapprochement with the United States and its allies.
It has been a multifront charm offensive: North Korea unexpectedly sent a high-level delegation to South Korea to attend the closing ceremonies of the Asian Games. It dispatched a senior envoy to the European Union to voice an interest in dialogue, and another to the wood-paneled confines of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where he sparred with an establishment crowd over North Korea’s human rights record.
On Wednesday, North Korea said Mr. Kim had personally ordered Mr. Fowle’s release after considering requests from President Obama. With Mr. Obama traveling to Beijing next month for a meeting of Pacific Rim leaders, that could be interpreted as an olive branch to both the United States and China, which is fed up with Pyongyang’s provocations but weary of American demands to pressure its hermetic neighbor.
“This is either Kim Jong-un on his own, or the people around him saying, ‘We’ve got to change this paradigm, because it is not working,’ ” said Joseph R. DeTrani, a longtime C.I.A. official who specialized in North Korea and is now the president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, an industry group.
Secretary of State John Kerry took note of the shift in the diplomatic winds. On a visit this week to Germany, where he was marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of another Cold War relic, the Berlin Wall, he said, “We hope that the dynamics can develop in the next weeks, months perhaps, where we could get back to talks.”