Does Anyone Else Find This Photograph of Kim Jong-un Scary?

Power is the message of this image, sure, but it is power diffused.

Korean leader Kim Jong-un and a bevy of scary henchmen.

Ebola is freaking us all out right now, especially the press photographs of people in haz-chem suits disinfecting buildings strewn with bodies. But what really caught my eye today was this photograph published in the New York Times of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un surrounded by a bevy of stern-faced military henchmen.

It is choreographed, obviously, to convey the hackneyed, almost laughable message that the short fat man in the middle is in charge–he is robed in a dark, distinctive black, placed out front of the pack, striding towards the future. It looks like a scene from A Chorus Line. Cue music.

The picture shows Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, North Korea, in July. The Times got the picture from the Korea Central News Agency, via Reuters, and it was apparently released to dissuade or disprove rumors that the boy-king of North Korea has been toppled or pushed-aside in a secret coup. Apparently he has not been seen in public since September 3.

What any of this really means is unclear—allegedly the Great Leader’s recent disappearance was caused by his uncontrollable appetite for Swiss cheese. Cheese causes gout, gout causes discomfort and thus a temporary disappearance. Mmmmm. Non North Korean analysts suspect however a possible purge of the North Korean ruling elite, for the last time Kim Jong-un disappeared from public view was about a year ago, after a falling out with his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, over business deals and power-sharing. The uncle then himself disappeared and not long after was, apparently, executed, the Times says. Nice.

I’m more interested in the reverse symbolism of the picture, the way it conveys to us a meaning that seems to be the opposite of what the propaganda authorities in North Korea intend. I came away from looking at this image thinking two related things. The first is just how small the Great Leader looks in the space– surely, they should have made him look bigger among his peers. Heels? Secondly, even if Kim Jong-un has been toppled, does it really matter? North Korea clearly has a robust supply of scary-looking military strongmen to take over. Look at them. If it is not the little fat man in black tights in charge, it is the stern old general on the right, or the wily guy in glasses a few rows back, or the guy behind him—all of whom are dwarfed by the grandiose locale chosen for this photo-op. This is a military and militarized state apparatus with a presidential figurehead.

Power is the message of this photograph, sure, but it is power shared and diffused—and tightly controlled. North Korea has a full roster of crazy, corrupt military strongmen ready and itching to take over.

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