Home Special Reports North Korea’s Heir apparent Analysts Examine the Image of North Korea’s Heir Apparent

Analysts Examine the Image of North Korea’s Heir Apparent

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Download Little is still known about North Korea’s heir apparent Kim Jong-un.

A week ago he was promoted to high positions in the military and government.

But most people inside and outside the secreative state didn’t even know what he looked like until photos and video were released of the young general, thought to be in his late 20s.

Some observers say you can learn a lot about Kim by studying those images.

And it’s his round, chubby face that might say the most about what kind of leader he may become.

Jason Strother has more from Seoul.



Red lanterns hang from the ceiling of the small Jabiwon Buddhist temple in northern Seoul.

A worshiper bows in front of the icons as a recording of chants plays in the background.

Seok Hwa Tam oversees the temple. He’s a face-reader, he says he has the ability to determine a person’s character and fortune just by examining the structure of their face.

Like many other South Koreans, Seok saw the face of North Korea’s heir apparent Kim Jong-un for the first time earlier this month after the Pyongyang regime unveiled him to the public.

Seok says his first impressions are not good.

“When I saw the recent pictures of Kim Jung-un, I didn’t see any leadership qualities in his face. His father and grandfather had respect from the North Korean people, but I do not think he will have the same.”

All three he says, based on their appearances, are not good men.

Seok says North Korea will have even more problems if Kim Jong-un does become the leader one day.

“When I see his pictures, even from his childhood,  he looks self-centered, has  a strong ego.  Now he has this big, fat face and I don’t think he has much wisdom”

Ever since his pictures were released, Kim Jong-un’s big, chubby face has gotten a lot of attention in South Korea. He’s been the target of fat jokes throughout online message boards.

But while it’s a laughing matter for many South Koreans, its no joke for some North Korean defectors who now call the south home.

One refugee who goes by the name Sun Mu was a university student in North Korea during the 1990s when famine devastated the country. Aid groups say millions died of starvation.

Sun Mu says he had to steal food to survive and remembers seeing dead children and homeless people all over his town.

So he had strong feelings when he saw Kim Jung-un’s picture for the first time.

“When I saw Kim Jong-un and how fat he is, I felt like I wanted to kill him. So many people have suffered from hunger and from North Korea's bad leadership.”

North Korean rulers have always been a bit on the heavy side. But Sun Mu admits that even during the famine, their leaders' wieight was never held against them. He says it's considered a good thing to be fat in North Korea.

“In North Korea there aren't many fat people. But we think heavy people have generous personalities and they look more warm.”

Brian Myers is the author of The Cleanest Race; How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters.   

Being thin, he says, is something reserved for the North's enemies.

"To be very thin is to look narrow minded, or perhaps unreliable, not so nice.  In fact, Americans have always been depicted in North Korean visual arts as very, very thin people."

But Myers says Kim Jong-un might actually be too fat, especially considering his young age.

And North Koreans might start asking questions about what he was doing while they were scavenging for food.

Myers predicts the North's propaganda machine will try to divert suspicion by producing heroic tales about Kim Jong-un.

"How he worked selflessly to improve the lives of the people.  We have already heard that he has been associated with construction campaigns, such as the campaign to build 100 thousand new apartments in Pyongyang and so on. And I expect to hear a lot of dramatic stories about his work in cold weather in difficult situations and so on. And that sort of thing, is going to counter or should counter the impressions that he did nothing but eat all that time."

Back in the Jabiwon temple, the monk Seok Hwa Tam says it is possible for Kim Jong-un to improve his fortune and become a good leader. But it won’t be easy.  

“Kim Jong-un could change his fortune by meeting a mentor, or a Confucian teacher. But he is surrounded by walls, supporters, so no one can reach him to give him advice.”

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