North Korea’s Kim Jong-il: Proof of life

December 18, 2008

                                                          By Jon Herskovitz

It is not often that I am reminded of Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan in our coverage of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.  But I thought of the 2000 movie starring Ryan and Crowe called “Proof of Life”   North Korea this week when  served up pictures of its Dear leader Kim and a communist party newspaper with a clearly marked Tuesday date.

This was the first time since Kim’s suspected stroke in August that North Korea has added a clear date as to when Kim appeared in public. The North has reported on Kim appearing several times in public over the past several weeks, but all of those reports have been undated.

 In the movie version, the “proof of life” is a part of the hostage and ransom trade where a kidnap victim holds up a newspaper to offer proof that he or she is alive on a certain date.

North Korea likes to do things its own way and in the official media, there is one picture that shows Kim in a winter coat, fur hat and ski gloves at a library standing behind his subjects as they stare into computer monitors. The next photograph shows a computer monitor with the on-line version of the North’s communist newspaper bearing Tuesday’s date. There is no picture of Kim and the newspaper together, but this is the closest North Korea has come to offering a proof of life, or better yet, a proof of recovery since Kim’s suspected illness.

State media has also been issuing reports and pictures of  what are called “field guidance visits” by Kim in recent months to places such as army units, factories and chicken farms. In most of these pictures, Kim seems a little bit thinner than he did about a year ago. He is almost always seen wearing a heavy coat, sunglasses and gloves.

But try hard as they might, the North Koreans have been unable to fully convince the rest of the world about Kim’s well-being. ”The fact that they cannot provide conclusive photographic evidence that he is alive now shows me that he is incapacitated,” says Brian Myers, an expert on the North’s propaganda at Dongseo University in South Korea.

There is still no clear and timely evidence, such as Kim attending a large ceremony or meeting visiting officials, that would indicate he has fully recovered.

The head of South Korea’s intelligence service was quoted as telling a parliamentary committee there is no evidence that the photos of Kim have been doctored but there is also no proof of when the pictures were actually taken.

There has been speculation in the South’s media that Kim is showing the lingering effects of a stroke with mobility limited in the left side of his body. Several local reports also note that Kim is no longer wearing his trademark platform shoes, saying he has more difficulty balancing after the stroke and the shoes are too dangerous for him to wear.

Within North Korea itself, people were probably aware of persistent reports about Kim’s health, analysts say. They point to a word-of-mouth network that has grown stronger in recent years.

And the average North Korean probably feels that that Kim is well in control due to all the pictures they have seen in official media over the past few weeks.

Whatever it is, Kim’s health is one of the most closely guarded secrets in the highly secretive North that is known only to a small inner circle. North Korea has yet to convince a lot of people that Kim is healthy, and until that happens; we are likely to see thousands of words of speculation until we get that one definitive picture.

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Proof of life? What a joke. By his own account there are several “doubles” he uses for his own protection. There’s no conceivable way to prove any picture, altered or not, is real. It’s not just a question of the integrity of the image being shown, but the true identity of the person being shown. There’s no way to know if you’re looking at the real deal or a body double.