For an official photographic introduction to the world, the picture of its future leader released Thursday by North Korea’s reclusive regime lacked much of a wow factor.
This is no larger-than-life propaganda billboard heralding a dazzling visage of Kim Jong Il’s mysterious youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, who is rumored to soon succeed his ailing 68-year-old father.
Rather, it’s a grainy postage-stamp-small image of the young man perched awkwardly among a group of grim-looking politicos at this week’s national convention of the ruling Workers’ Party.
Since talk began surfacing about an imminent political succession in Pyongyang, any up-to-date photograph of Kim Jong Eun has been in hot demand.
Without one, news outlets worldwide instead published a long-ago snapshot of a boy thought to be Jong Eun, now believed to be in his late 20s, reportedly taken at a European boarding school.
Albeit fuzzy, the old photo shows a smiling figure with bright eyes, far different from the new, stone-faced photo.
The front-page photograph was published in Thursday’s edition of the regime’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper and released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. Jong Eun sits in the front row of the group photo, with a military officer between him and his father. A separate video appears to show him in an auditorium, flanked by two men in military uniforms. Rows of politicos, almost all of them men in suits, white shirts and ties, are seated behind.
The images were widely printed and broadcast by South Korean news media.
“Kim Jong Eun looks to have short hair, a big head and face and chubby cheeks, just like his father, Kim Jong Il. And he appears to have a large frame,” South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported. “It’s definitely a change from the slender and nimble image seen during his teenager days in Switzerland.”
Another Seoul newspaper said he resembled his late grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
South Korean officials said the photo seemed to be genuine.
“To confirm the picture’s validity is something that only the North Korean government can do,” Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said. “But taking into account all the circumstances, it appears to be a picture of Kim Jong Eun.”
For all of his life, Jong Eun has been a public enigma, yet another of the regime’s closely guarded secrets. Until recently, those North Koreans who even knew of his existence dared not mention his name.
Several would-be photographs of the youngest Kim have circulated, mostly obtained by the Japanese news media. But before Thursday, the only confirmed image made public was an autographed photo that he gave in the 1990s to a sushi chef who was working for his father.
The chef, Kenji Fujimoto, later described the teenager in a memoir as a “chip off the old block, a spitting image of his father in terms of face, body shape and personality.”
Although Jong Eun this week was named to senior positions in the Workers’ Party, another sign that he may soon be North Korea’s next leader, some suggested that Thursday’s photograph actually called that move into question.
“Looking at a young kid supposed to be 27 or 28 and appointing him a general is something ordinary citizens are finding hard to believe,” Kim Heung-gwang, a former university professor who heads the Seoul-based North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity group.
“Many sources who I spoke to are saying, ‘How is this kid going to lead a nation?’”
Kim works in The Times’ Seoul Bureau.