In North Korea, you’re never far from a Kim.
Portraits of late leaders Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung hang in nearly every office, school and public space, and couples are given a copy on their wedding day. “Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are considered to be gods” in North Korea, Je Son Lee, a defector who fled the country in 2011, told NK News. “That’s why we have to have their portraits, in order to be with them all the time. It’s almost equivalent to having the cross of the statues of Jesus at church.”
Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, after the death of his father Kim Jong Il, but he did not have an official portrait until this week.
In the painting, unveiled on state television during a visit by the Cuban president, Kim is shown smiling, wearing black-rimmed glasses and a Western-style suit and tie.
North Korea expert Soo Kim said the portrait’s unveiling might suggest that Kim believes he’s entering a new stage in his leadership. “It suggests he’s confident enough in his consolidation of power,” she said, and feels he is “no longer just in the shadows of father and grandfather.”
His new portrait could also signal his acknowledgment of a new era in North Korean governance. Unlike his father, who relied heavily on the military, Kim has pursued diplomatic connections around the world. He traveled to South Korea and China, and held a summit with President Trump.
In the painting, “he looks very jovial and very happy,” Soo Kim said.
It’s a persona he also seems to channel on his trips abroad. Ahead of his meeting with Trump in Singapore, he took selfies with local leaders and smiled for onlookers. Soo Kim believes this carefully cultivated image is meant to help the young leader cultivate relationships — and, in turn, favor — with foreign leaders. His decision to wear a suit and tie for his portrait, instead of more traditional attire, may also signal his attempt to split from his father’s reclusive image.
“One picture speaks so many words,” Soo Kim said.
B.G. Muhn, a Georgetown University professor who studies North Korean art, said Kim took a long time to find an artist for his portrait. “Artists had not been approved to paint a portrait of Kim Jong Un for years after Kim assumed power in 2011,” Muhn said. “Even when I consulted a North Korean artist early this year, he told me approval for Kim Jong Un’s portrait has not been issued yet.”
Muhn predicts the portrait will be produced on a mass scale and up for viewing at locations countrywide.
If so, hosts will likely have to follow the same regulations for other Kim portraits. The portraits must be hung high on an empty wall so that no one’s head is taller. They also must be cleaned at least a couple of times a week. If dust is found on the frame, the keeper of the portrait is forced to pay a fine.
Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.