What a new por­trait tells us about Kim Jong Un


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 trav­elled to South Korea and China, and held a sum­mit with Pres­i­dent Don­ald 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, favour — 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 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.


North Korea used the DPRK-Cuba sum­mit to dis­play this first of­fi­cial por­trait of Kim Jong Un, along­side that of Pres­i­dent Miguel Díaz-Canel.

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