Seoul, South Korea – Images from North Korea have a near superpower ability to go viral, whether it be a photo of Kim Jong Un watching shirtless men soak in luxury hot springs or a shot of the North Korean leader riding a white stallion through the snow.
The images might appear absurdly staged, but they are vital clues to experts who use them to decipher Pyongyang’s hidden messages – especially in 2019, a year of tough diplomatic ups and downs between Kim Jong Un, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and United States President Donald Trump.
“Historically speaking, it has been a long, incredible past year,” said C Harrison Kim, a professor of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “And still, there are many long-term goals that are left to achieve.”
With diplomacy so uncertain, analysts are parsing through North Korea’s state media for hints of what the world can expect in 2020.
North Korea and the US are just days away from Kim Jong Un’s end-of-year deadline for progress in denuclearisation talks, which have fizzled since the Hanoi summit collapsed in February. The North has carried out a number of missile tests in recent months in contravention of United Nations sanctions, and experts fear the next move will probably not be more of the “beautiful letters” exchanged between Trump and Kim.
“North Korea has left room for what exactly has to happen, but they said the US needs to make a concrete proposal to them,” said John Delury, an associate professor at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul. “Kim Jong Un clearly has been clear about it – he has a deadline.”
The recent photos of Kim Jong Un riding a white horse across Mount Paektu, for example, evoke far more than a strongman reminder of a shirtless Vladimir Putin astride a stallion.
In these images, Kim rides solo for a reason, experts say: He is trying to show that he can stand alone despite souring relations with Seoul and Washington.
“The last time Kim Jong Un had been on Mount Paektu was with Moon at the Pyongyang Summit back in September 2018, and it was to create the optics that North and South Korea were going to build prosperity together,” said Jenny Town, a fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington and managing editor of North Korea analysis website 38 North.
“This time around, I think it was really deliberate to have Kim Jong Un on the horse by himself. It says, ‘I am going to seek prosperity by myself, without Moon’.”
Mount Paektu is regarded as sacred land in Korean history. Folklore deems it the birthplace of Dangun – the legendary founder of the first Korean kingdom – and North Korea propaganda has since named it the birthplace of the country’s second leader, Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011.
“I think it was meant to attest to his energy and his vigour – it was meant to show that he is a very capable, well-rounded person who has some kind of natural leadership,” C Harrison Kim said. “You see this as a common theme in leaders of post-socialist countries like Russia and China,” he added, comparing the image with a1966 photograph of Mao Zedong swimming with bodyguards in the Yangtze River.
Economic sanctions have had a severe impact on North Korea’s economy, but while China and Russia are calling for the relaxation of some restrictions to entice Pyongyang back to the table, the US has refused to budge.
Human rights abuses also continue, but both Trump and Moon have dithered on addressing the issue.
“That’s why we see Kim Jong Un out connecting with factory workers in one photo, but riding a white horse in another. He’s trying to portray himself as a leader who is able to deal with a variety of situations and people,” C Harrison Kim said.
“Kim Jong Il’s leadership was an era of very extreme economic and material hardship, and Kim Jong Il was mostly known for his connection to the military. He was not photographed out in the streets walking about. But Kim Jong Un is really trying to evoke the golden period of North Korea – the period of Kim Il Sung.”
Images published in state media hardly make North Korea look like a country suffering under economic sanctions.
Earlier this month, the Korean Central News Agency released photos of its new socialist “utopia” town called Samjiyon, complete with thousands of homes wedged in between ski slopes.
“North Korea’s agenda is really an economic development agenda, and so I think there’s great importance to this project,” Town said. “It shows the economy is still strong despite the pressure and hardship the country is under.”
North Korean media also released images of Kim Jong Un at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Yangdok Hot Spring Cultural Recreation Center, a resort complex equipped with ski slopes, a horse-riding park and outdoor spas.
“Of course, North Korea wants sanctions lifted, but these photos are trying to show that they will always find a way to survive and even thrive,” C Harrison Kim said.
Ultimately, North Korea’s flashy photos of new facilities or Kim Jong Un on horseback are meant to project resilience ahead of his New Year’s speech. Every year, the North Korean leader addresses his country and the world from Pyongyang.
“Last year, the speech was very much about peace with South Korea and the US. But this year, I doubt you’ll see any of that,” Town said.
“Rather, [Kim Jong Un] will say, ‘We tried diplomacy and it didn’t work, but look how strong we still are.’ That’s probably the message for 2020.”