Kim Jong Un in Europe (or Kim Il Sung in Jilin?)
Ever since Kim Jong Un was introduced to the public in late September, when he was promoted to the rank of general and then received a number of important posts in the ruling Korean Workers' Party, we have been waiting to get the first insights into how the youngest son of leader Kim Jong Il will be fitted into the ideological system of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). To most North Koreans, he emerged almost out of nowhere; hence the DPRK's propaganda apparatus now needs to present a convincing story to solidify his legitimacy as the next top leader. Much more than a purely academic question for Pyongyang watchers or another expression of a bizarre Stalinist cult of personality, this is one of the key issues that will determine political faith in Kim Jong Un. More importantly, it will be a major factor determining the future of North Korea, which is of course of great concern to its neighbors, the United States, and the international community. Accordingly, even the slightest development regarding the role of Kim Jong Un has to be taken very seriously. However, due care must be taken also that we do not only see what we want to see.
One painting and many doubts
On Dec. 1, I received a picture of what could have been the first painting of Kim Jong Un. Percy Toop, a Canadian tourist, had photographed it on Oct. 27, 2010, at the Rajin Art Gallery in the country's northeast. To him, it seemed to be a recent addition to a group of Kim family pictures, including those of Kim Il Sung and his first wife Kim Jong Suk, and their son Kim Jong Il, the current leader of North Korea. Canada's Globe and Mail reported enthusiastically about the painting Dec. 4 on its front page.
The painting shows a young Korean man standing at a lake (or a river) in what could be Europe, with a large Gothic cathedral in the background. He stares into the direction of the rising sun -- east, where his home country is located. Or is it west, where the sun sets? His face shows a mix of sadness and resolve. His cap is almost identical to the one worn by Kim Il Sung at that age in paintings and photographs. The suit is of the style that was worn by Kim Il Sung and others during the colonial period (1910 to 1945) and thereafter. At first, most experts (including myself) thought: This is Kim Jong Un in Switzerland. Or is it another Kim Il Sung painting?
Kim Il-sung crossing the Amnok (Yalu) River in 1925,
at the age of 13
The clothes and the young man's face strongly resemble Kim Il Sung. The cap even seems to be identical. There is no clearly distinguishable badge on the young man's chest. Kim Il Sung would not wear one, of course. But wouldn't Kim Jong Un do so, like any other North Korean? This seems sufficient to declare that the man in the picture is Kim Il Sung.
In North Korea, things are not that simple, however. The artist's and the propagandists' goal could have been to make Kim Jong Un look as much like his grandfather as possible. Observers noted this phenomenon already when the younger Kim first appeared in public during the party conference this September. His face, his hairstyle, his clothes -- it almost seemed like the Eternal President had returned from the dead. And North Koreans abroad do sometimes take off the badge, in particular if they are undercover.
It is therefore less helpful to focus on the man in the painting if we want to know who he actually is. The key seems to be the scenery. At first glance, it strongly resembles what could be Switzerland, France, or Germany. However, Kim Il Sung had not been to Europe before 1956, at least not officially. Other revolutionaries are rarely depicted in this style, which is reserved for the leader. So if this is Europe, then chances are good that the young man in the picture is Kim Jong Un.
But is it Europe? Church buildings in neo-Gothic style have been erected on many other continents. When walking from my home in Manhattan to my office at Columbia University a few years ago, every day I passed by the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine -- built in the early 20th century but looking very similar (at least to a layperson) to the medieval cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. In fact, the building on the picture could be the Catholic Church at the bank of Songhua River in Jilin city, China (see this recent photo taken by Ken Larmon). The former Jilin cathedral is actually farther away from the river; but the painter might have taken artistic license. The clerical building does not do much to help us be sure of the location.