Bizarre North Korean propaganda photos are something of a cherished wellspring for foreign news journalists, for whom they provide otherwise rare comic relief and occasional insights into the world's most closed-off nation. Recent classics include Kim Jong Un hunched over an ancient computer, Kim Jong Un on a roller coaster with a white guy, Kim Jong Un scolding weather forecasters, dolphins in Pyongyang, and of course the all-time favorite, Kim Jong Il looking at things.
Now, after several painful weeks with no Kim Jong Un photos at all (the young despot was incommunicado, thought to be recovering from either gout or an ankle injury), the hard-working men and women of the Korean Central News Agency have gifted us with one of the finest specimens in months. Behold, via the Washington Post's Adam Taylor, Kim Jong Un and stern North Korean officials visit the Pyongyang Baby Home and Orphanage:
There's so much to appreciate about this photo. What is Kim Jong Un looking at? What is all that furious note-taking about? (According to state media, Kim offered such crucial guidance as, "It is important to have good parenting.") Why is the orphanage so creepily empty? Is there a little piece of Kim, deep down in his soul, that desperately wants to climb into the swan toy boat?
What I really love about this photo, though, is the too-good-to-be-an-accident composition: the drab grays and greens of the uniforms against the pastels of the orphanage; the way the officials are tightly clustered, as if they were afraid of something; the surrealism of the scene and the way the figures almost appear to have been staged, like an Annie Leibovitz photo shoot for the cover of Vanity Fair: Pyongyang.
The bizarre wallpapers and twee-awkward staging of it all could be a promotional photo for a new Wes Anderson film; my colleague Amanda Taub suggested, as a name, "The Confused Coterie of Dastardly Diplomats." Former New Mexico Governor and frequent North Korea visitor Bill Richardson would, naturally, be played by Bill Murray.
As a bonus, here is a delightful photo, from the same visit, of Kim Jong Un inspecting a teacup:
So why does Kim Jong Un bother with all of these anodyne little visits, in which he inspects things that clearly do not need his inspection and offers "guidance" so banal that it is meaningless? It makes more sense viewed through the obsessive and near-religious cult of personality that the Kim family maintains: his every move is seen as so significant that the simple act of visiting an orphanage is news. (When his grandfather Kim Il Sung ruled, certain chairs he sat in or beds he slept in would routinely be marked off with a plaque.)
These photos are also partly about conveying just how much the supreme leader cares; the simple fact that he made the effort to visit the orphanage is supposed to demonstrate that he is personally invested in North Korean childcare. Faith in his benevolence goes so deep that the mere fact he attended an orphanage is often taken as proof that he is doing everything possible to provide for the country's orphans.
To be clear, as entertaining as these photos are, and un-self-aware as its subjects appear, we shouldn't let ourselves forget that this is a government that runs one of the largest and cruelest systems of human rights abuses in the world.