By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 6:48 PM
TOKYO - North Korea's state news agency on Thursday published a photograph of Kim Jong Eun, revealing to the outside world the image of a man whose face hadn't been seen in roughly 15 years. The photo's publication, according to experts, qualified as another benchmark in the unveiling of Kim Jong Il's youngest son and presumed successor.
The photo, first published in North Korea's official Workers' Party newspaper, the Rodung Shinmun, shows Kim Jong Eun sitting on a red chair, surrounded by attendees from Pyongyang's recent political conference. He has chubby cheeks, reminiscence of his grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. His mouth is pursed. He is wearing a black Maoist-style track suit. His hair, parted in the middle, flows up on both sides, giving his hairline the profile of an "M." Dozens of delegates stand behind him. Two seats to the left of the Young General sits Kim Jong Il.
North Korea also released video footage from the party conference that pictured Kim Jong Eun in the audience, listening to speeches or standing in applause.
Until this week, Kim Jong Eun qualified as the best-concealed figure in the world's most secretive state. As part of its Workers' Party conference in Pyongyang, though, North Korea issued strong signals for a father-to-son power transfer. According to North Korea's news agency, Kim Jong Eun was named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. He was also named to the Central Committee and given rank as a four-star general.
Prior to the conference, North Korean media had never printed Kim Jong Eun's name. Despite a paparazzi-style chase among South Korean and Japanese media, nobody yet had uncovered a photo of Kim Jong Eun as an adult. Within the last two years, two Japanese media outlets thought they found photos of him. Turned out, they had photos of a middle-aged construction worker and a young factory manager.
Some Seoul-based experts emphasized the significance of the released photo, in part because North Korea cares very much about the faces of its leaders. North Korean soldiers wear pins showing the faces of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. Portraits of both Kims must be displayed in every North Korean home.
"From the photo release, we can assume Kim Jong Eun is going to start making many public appearances related to his position as the successor and as a party and military official," said Yang Moo Jin, an expert at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.
The dearth of earlier Kim Jong Eun photos forced media outlets on the only thing they had: A confirmed photo of Jong Eun, fleshy face at an angle, wearing a black turtleneck. Experts guess the photo shows him as a 12-year-old. Wednesday, reporting party conference news from Pyongyang, all of Seoul's major papers ran the same photograph on the front page.
Kim Jong Eun is now believed to be either 26 or 27.
Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.