North Korea mystery: Is that Kim Jong Un or some random dude?

Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun newspaper seemingly had a scoop today, identifying the man on the left in this recent photo as North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s third son — and presumed successor — Kim Jong Un. While reports of Kim Jong Un being groomed have been steadily seeping out of North Korea for months, (See ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
569802_100420_kju2.jpg
569802_100420_kju2.jpg

Japan's Mainichi Shimbun newspaper seemingly had a scoop today, identifying the man on the left in this recent photo as North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's third son -- and presumed successor -- Kim Jong Un. While reports of Kim Jong Un being groomed have been steadily seeping out of North Korea for months, (See also; Christian Caryl on the latest reports of power struggles in Pyongyang) there are no known recent picture of him and news outlets have generally been using this childhood photo.  

Here's the report from Mainichi's English edition:

Most of the photos show Kim Jong Un wearing what appears to be a navy-blue suit and red tie, and standing by his father. They appear to be listening to an explanation provided by a guide. One of the photos shows Kim Jong Un taking notes.

Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun newspaper seemingly had a scoop today, identifying the man on the left in this recent photo as North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s third son — and presumed successor — Kim Jong Un. While reports of Kim Jong Un being groomed have been steadily seeping out of North Korea for months, (See also; Christian Caryl on the latest reports of power struggles in Pyongyang) there are no known recent picture of him and news outlets have generally been using this childhood photo.  

Here’s the report from Mainichi‘s English edition:

Most of the photos show Kim Jong Un wearing what appears to be a navy-blue suit and red tie, and standing by his father. They appear to be listening to an explanation provided by a guide. One of the photos shows Kim Jong Un taking notes.

The North Korean news organization did not specify the date when they inspected the iron works, but the inspection is believed to have taken place a few days before the coverage. The paper does not identify Kim Jong Un by name, while reporting that Kim Jong Il’s sister, Kim Kyong Hui and her husband accompanied the North Korean leader.

According to the sources, the management of a clothing company in Pyongyang instructed employees to read the March 5 issue of the Rodong Sinmum. One of the employees asked his superior what would be run in the paper. The boss reportedly replied that the paper would carry numerous photos of Kim Jong Un.

But South Korean sources are questioning whether the man in the photo is, in fact, Kim Jong Un. Here’s the Korea Times:

[A]n official of the Ministry of Unification denied the report, commenting that the man in the photo looked instead like an executive of the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex. The official told reporters on condition of anonymity that the same man had been in the previous photos taken in February and December of last year and March of this year when Kim Jong-il had visited the complex.

“Given that fact, the Unification Ministry assumes that he is someone who works at the complex,” the official said.

Another government source said that the man in the photo released by Mainichi Shimbun, the Japanese newspaper, appeared to be in his 30s or 40s, much older than the North’s heir apparent. Jong-un is now 26 years old.

Despite the doubts, Mainichi is standing by its story

More than anything, this illustrates the big problem with North Korea news: it’s almost always interesting and almost never verifiable. I also wonder how much of this is driven by competition between South Korean and Japanese news agencies over who can get the most sensational Kim scoops. With everyone relying on rumors or anonymous sources of dubious credibility, it must be pretty easy for overeager reporters to get suckered — or just make stuff up. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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