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What Kim Jong-un’s new photo tells us about North Korea

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    Image copyright KCNA
    Image caption Holding hands is a sign of friendship and respect in Korean culture

    In a report on Tuesday, North Korea’s state media indicated that leader Kim Jong-un was delighted with the outcome of his country’s attendance at the Winter Olympics.

    Accompanying the report was an unusually relaxed picture of Mr Kim with his sister and the head of state. As analyst Michael Madden explains, a lot can be read into such pictures from the secretive state.

    As far as Kim Jong-un’s commemorative photo sessions go, this projects a fairly relaxed image of top officials.

    Commemorative photographs taken during his on-site visits and military field inspections usually involve carefully selected North Korean citizens, and the photo moment might be the only occasion where they will meet the Supreme Leader, let alone be in close proximity to him.

    So we tend to see North Korean workers or soldiers crying, gesticulating in reverence and, when posing for the photograph, standing statue still and giving sombre expressions.

    These photographs are then hung up in whatever room has been earmarked at the worksite or military base that has been designated for displaying “revolutionary history”.

    Copies are sometimes distributed to the workers or soldiers in them, and citizens who have participated in multiple commemorative photo sessions with him hang the photos, framed of course, in a prominent and honoured place in their homes.

    Kim Yo-jong’s ‘smize’

    Senior officials can sometimes appear tense in these photos. This happens for a number of reasons.

    One, it is a matter of respect for the moment and not wishing to appear frivolous in front of Kim Jong-un, or in state media.

    Two, sometimes these senior officials are posing for these photographs in the course of a busy work day.

    Finally, there is always the chance that Mr Kim’s on-site visit or inspection did not go well, for whatever reason, and they may have been upbraided by the Supreme Leader himself.

    Image copyright Getty Images
    Image caption Ms Kim has only recently returned from her trip to the Pyeongchang Olympics

    Kim Yo-jong has been an exception, because she has been observed to smirk or smile with her eyes – to smize – in these photos, an indication of her personality and authority in North Korean political culture.

    However, there is very little tension in Mr Kim’s new photograph with the high-level delegation that had just spent three days in South Korea meeting senior officials, most notably having several interactions with President Moon Jae-in.

    The photo was taken after Mr Kim had received briefings from Kim Yong-nam – the formal North Korean head of state – and Ms Kim, one of his closest aides.

    The meeting room where the photo took place is located in central Pyongyang and is familiar to North Korean citizens as it has been the venue of numerous interactions between senior officials and late leader Kim Jong-il.

    Look closely at National Sports and Physical Culture Commission Chairman Choe Hwi and Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country Chairman Ri Son-gwon. They still have their notebooks and pens in their hands.

    Image copyright KCNA
    Image caption Kim Jong-un flanked by his sister Kim Yo-jong and chairman Choe Hwi on the right, and head of state Kim Yong-nam and chairman Ri Son-gwon on the left

    On the one hand, we might view this as a bit of uncertainty. In the event Mr Kim has more instructions or guidance to provide after the shutter stops clicking, they don’t want to risk fumbling around for the notebook.

    Hiding the notebooks behind their backs and thus clasping their hands in the Supreme Leader’s presence would be interpreted as highly disrespectful.

    On the other hand, there could be a degree of spontaneity. Perhaps, meeting done, the photo session was impromptu and Mr Choe and Mr Ri did not have time to put their notebooks down.

    We don’t know if the meeting was lubricated with wine toasts or liquors. Choe Hwi is relaxed and bemused, while Ri Son-gwon (being a former military intelligence officer) almost cracks a smile, in contrast to the fairly tense expression he wore throughout the weekend in the South.

    Closer to Mr Kim, we find Kim Yong-nam holding hands with the North Korean leader.

    There is an act of respect and deference on Kim Jong-un’s part as he is the one holding Kim Yong-nam’s arm.

    On Kim Jong-un’s other side, again in an act of respect, Kim Yo-jong clutches her brother’s arm, like other officials that are subordinate to him. The Supreme Leader, when we look closely at his face, is amused at the whole scene. There is a subtle transparency here.

    The recently released photograph is also reminiscent of an old photo showing Mr Kim’s aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, with her arm around Kim ll-Sung.

    Image copyright KCNA
    Image caption Kim Kyong Hui with Kim Il Sung (centre) and Kim Jong-il during the 1970s

    During the Sunshine Period between 1998 and 2008, when the South tried to build a closer relationship with the North, many senior North Korean officials went to the South and returned to brief Kim Jong-il. But these meetings were seldom, if ever, reported in real time.

    There have been previous photos showing affection between members of the Kim family and certainly photos of senior North Korean officials not looking as if they’re posing for their morgue shots. Mr Kim was last year even pictured giving someone a piggyback.

    Kim Jong-un has also held the arms or hands of elder senior officials and even civilians before; in Korean culture this is a sign of friendship and respect.

    Image copyright KCNA
    Image caption These fruit farmers are seen locking their arms with Kim Jong-un’s
    Image copyright KCNA
    Image caption A girl is shown overwhelmed with emotion as she holds the arm of the then-leader Kim Jong-il

    The recently released photo is intended to show the more relaxed, freewheeling aspects of the North’s top leadership. It softens some of the sharp edges and shows a youthful leader so confident in his role and position in the regime that he is ready to deal with the South.

    Michael Madden is Visiting Scholar of the US Korea Institute at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University and Director of NK Leadership Watch, an affiliate of 38 North.

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