He’s chubby-cheeked and serious, wearing a dark blue Mao suit. He's sandwiched between two elderly generals, his father one general away on his left.
Thus Kim Jong-un, the heir presumptive to power over North Korea, made his photo debut on Thursday after years of speculation about when North Koreans, and the rest of the world, would get a glimpse of him.
The photograph, released by North Korea Thursday, was promptly displayed on television and in newspapers in South Korea as proof positive that the young man, in his late 20s, is definitely on the fast track to the job held by his ailing father. Its dissemination came two days after Kim Jong-il made him a general along with five others, including his aunt, and one day after he was named a vice chairman of the military commission of the Workers’ Party.
Then, hours after release of the still photograph of the leadership lineup, North Korea state TV broadcast video of the conference showing Kim Jong-un in the front row, applauding along with everyone else in the large hall. His father, on stage in front, acknowledged the cheers, applauding diffidently in return, smiling before the camera again focused on the son.
“They want to show he’s healthy,” says Kim Bum-soo, publisher of a conservative political magazine in Seoul. “And they want to show his father is healthy, too.”
The image of Kim Jong-un as a specimen of good health is clear, but there’s no disguising his father's fragility. Kim Jong-il looks frail and weak as a result of the stroke that he suffered in August 2008 and a host of other illnesses that help explain the need to elevate his son to high positions on the road to power.
The son, who was named to the central committee of the party at its conference of delegates on Tuesday, is still not a member of the all-powerful party Politburo, but he’s surrounded in the photograph by Politburo members.
In between Kim Jong-un and his father sits Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, chief of staff of the armed forces, his chest ablaze with medals. On Kim’s right sit two more generals, equally bedecked with medals. The message seems clear: The armed forces dominate the country, and the country’s military leaders are going to protect Kim as he prepares to take over whenever his father leaves the scene.
North Korea’s hard-line message came through hours before the photograph was released, when talks between North and South Korean military officers got nowhere, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry. North Korea had requested the talks, the first between officers on both sides in two years, in the truce village of Panmunjom on the line between the two Koreas.
A defense spokesman said, however, that the North again rejected South Korea’s charge that a North Korean submarine fired the torpedo that sank the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan in March, with a loss of 46 sailors.
And in the early hours here, Wednesday in New York, North Korea shocked the world with an extremely tough message delivered by North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, Pak Kil-yon. Mr. Pak, who is a vice foreign minister, said North Korea’s nuclear stockpile “should be strengthened” while the United States had aircraft carriers in the region.
Without a nuclear deterrent, said Pak, in a message that seemed carefully planned to coincide with Kim Jong-un’s emergence as a powerful figure, “the Korean Peninsula would have been turned into a war field scores of times.”
But the real message Thursday was in the photograph showing Kim Jong-un as a leader in training.
“He looks sad,” says Choi Jin-wook, veteran analyst of North Korea at the Korean institute of National Unification, “but he’s definitely going to the top rank.”
The proof, he says, is in the picture.
“The point is the people around him,” says Mr. Choi. “They are Politburo members and generals. They are guarding him.”