In a diplomatic offensive dating back to last February’s Winter Olympics, Kim Jong Un has proved himself a master at softening his media image. His summit with Donald Trump in Singapore was just the latest example.
His visual evolution, however, has had a longer trajectory.
After stepped into his father’s shoes, Korean state media was filled with more “traditional” and customary images. Military field inspections were prevalent, as well as commercialvisits featuring pre-selected citizens staring up in awe at their Supreme Leader. Other pictures portrayed him as stolid and alone, an übermensch dictator with an ever-present cigarette.
Consider the image of the immaculately dressed Kim allegedly climbing Mt. Paektu, the country’s tallest mountain. In their turn, these images became viral memes (so much that state officials in China implored citizens to stop ridiculing him and started censoring offensive posts).
These propaganda images — many in North Korea’s case highly (yet ineptly) digitally altered–are in sync with historical images of totalitarian leaders. Propaganda conveyed through portraits – painting, sculpture, urban architecture – was a way of communicating key political ideas and beliefs to a largely illiterate population.
Likenesses of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao framed an idealized vision of the Communist future as already achieved, and photographs of Hitler were intrinsic to his rise and rule. Contemporary times are no different. Even the ubiquitous Obama “Hope” image mirrors the Soviet propaganda posters of the 1930’s. Accordingly, one of Kim’s first orders of business as president of the DPRK was to erect a statue – 10 million U.S. dollars worth – of the family dynasty.
Those efforts dealt more with identity branding. But where the political goes, the photographic follows.
Aspiring to gain global recognition through engagement with South Korea and the US, more recent images of Kim have shifted away from the ominous, impassive despot. Gone is the ruthless dictator who tortures and starves defectors; who presides over missile launches; who threatens to take out US military bases in Asia or even the US homeland.
In a sudden pivot toward diplomacy, Kim Jong Un morphed into the legitimate statesman, the global-minded politician. An unusually relaxed photo, showing him with his sister clutching his arm and another high-level official holding his hand, marks the beginning of this visual transition: Although his face remains impenetrable, Kim seems to profess his delight with his country’s participation in the Olympics, the worldwide sporting showcase, by allowing for physical proximity and touch.
Kim has also made effective use of proxies, especially his sister, as well as the North Korean cheerleading squad, at the Winter Olympics. Given the enormous attention Kim Yo Jong received in the western media for the visual trolling of Vice-President Pence at the Opening Ceremonies, it’s fair to say that Kim’s sister stole the show in Pyongyang.
More recent photo-ops released by North Korea’s Central News Agency catch Kim smiling and gesturing broadly with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; bonding with the president of South Korea Moon Jae-in; and humbly taking notes when meeting China’s President Xi Jinping.
Increasingly, his body language appears genuine rather than staged, his face actively listening rather than impenetrable. The popular Mao jacket has even been supplanted at times with suits that rival the best you would see on Wall Street. The populist tyrant has transformed into a “people person”: the only thing remaining is his signature trapezoidal hairstyle, designed to remind viewers of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea.
In tracking his metamorphosis, the set of photographs of Kim crossing the DMZ with South Korean President Moon were pure virtuoso. Stoking the innocence of children playing in a sandbox, Kim skillfully played on the hopes and dreams of so many South Koreans simultaneously terrified about annihilation and prayerful for reunification.
On the eve of the Singapore Summit, Kim pulled off still another populist scene. Mindful of the 3,000 journalists in town, Kim went for a (heavily guarded) evening stroll in which he posed for a selfie with Singapore officials. Taking full advantage of this common practice, the basic convention of so many social media platforms, how far Kim had come from the staged and doctored images of him “climbing” mountains.
The irony of the photos of the actual summit is that they were hardly interesting. But given Kim’s agenda, they didn’t have to be. The fact that Trump had afforded him visual parity on the world stage was the payoff. Otherwise, the photos appeared as staged and devoid of genuine emotion as those old pictures published by the Official Korean Central News Agency.
Notwithstanding the bizarre propaganda film trailer made by the US State Department, mixing both Hollywood and propaganda tropes, the highly anticipated coverage remained bland and unconvincing. Free of the tension between “little rocket man” and “the dotard,” the cameras did not capture any meaningful engagement between the two. Beyond the “historic” hype, and the President’s claims about concurrence and deep bonding, Trump maintained his alpha demeanor while Kim appeared more nervous than usual; both avoiding being pulled in or dominated by the other.
The most telling image of the meeting was the one documenting the signing of a vague and toothless final joint declaration–the one in which Kim pledges “to work towards” the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and the President “commits to provide security guarantees.”
Although anticipated as a Nobel-Prize-worthy event, the image, like the document, does not deliver. As is often the case with Trump’s political undertakings, the result is anti-climatic. Both leaders seem uncomfortable and disengaged. Physically separated by the flower arrangement; they do not seem to occupy the same picture.
The widely-circulated image of the politicians leaving the room is far more interesting. Because the summit was largely about posturing, the photo is best understood in terms of intimidation and control, the game both totalitarians are fluent in. Sympathetic on the surface, it could also be seen as Kim Jong Un pushing Trump out the door, or at least, having him well in hand.
At the top of this post, you saw a photo of Kim reacting with joy, celebrating a missile launch with his military team. Given the presence and situation of the monitors, however, you can also imagine the success he is celebrating is his power to harness what’s on the screen.
-Marta J. Zarzycka
Photo 1: STR/AFP/Getty Caption: North Korean chief Kim Jong Un reacting after the test-fire of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 at an undisclosed location, November 2017; Photo 2: Photo courtesy of Yonhap News Caption: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un poses with a cigarette in an undated photo. Photo 3: North Korea’s Official Korean Central News Agency Caption: Kim Jong-un “climbing” Mt. Paektu, the country’s tallest mountain. December 1 2017; Photo 4: North Korea’s Official Korean Central News Agency via AFP/Getty Images Caption: Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il made of bronze in Pyongyang, the DPRK capital; Photo 5: KCNA, North Korea’s Official Korean Central News Agency Caption: ; Photo 6: North Korea’s Official Korean Central News Agency Caption: Kim Jong Un and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shake hands at the Workers’ Party of Korea headquarters in Pyongyang on May 9, 2018; Photo 7: AP Caption: Kim Jong Un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in cross the military demarcation line at the border village of Panmunjom in Demilitarized Zone Friday, April 27, 2018; Photo 8: Nicholas Yeo/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images Caption: Kim Jong Un posing for a selfie with Singapore’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, on Monday 11 June 2018; Photo 9: Evan Vucci/AP Caption: President Donald Trump holds up the document that he and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un just signed at the Capella resort on Singapore’s Sentosa island Tuesday, June 12, 2018; Photo 10: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters Caption: President Trump and Kim Jong Un leave after signing documents at Singapore summit, Tuesday, June 12.