About the Author
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
North Korean media coverage of the test of a “new-type” submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on Thursday surprised some in becoming the first such exercise this year at which the country’s leader Kim Jong Un did not appear.
Early-morning coverage in the party-run newspaper the Rodong Sinmun carried images of the Wednesday launch, including two which depicted several officials at the familiar observation deck where Kim is usually seen.
But while the leader was notably absent from both the photos and the text — reported to have instead merely congratulated other officials on its success — there is conclusive evidence that one image in coverage later on October 3 was doctored to remove a beverage glass and mobile phone from the desk.
Rodong photos published in the morning showed an orange-colored beverage in a glass identical in design to one seen recently at other launches Kim attended, as well as a phone similar, but not identical, to ones seen in other Kim appearances.
In an image broadcast on Korean Central Television (KCTV) at 17:00, however — appearing to have been taken only moments apart from the Rodong image — the glass and phone are gone, while other items typically seen on the large observation desk in the presence of Kim Jong Un are newly visible.
These other items are what could be a cream-colored pack of Konsol-brand cigarettes — Kim’s brand of choice seen in his appearances recently — and a white wire object serving as the stand for a map pointer or rod (shown in an image at the bottom of the page).
As for the reason the beverage glass and phone are absent from the KCTV photo, NK News analysis shows it has been artificially removed: a small area of camouflage netting in the image background has been copied and moved to cover up that area of the photo next to the large paperweights.
The motivations for the doctoring are less clear, but experts say it is a possible sign of an attempt to obscure the leader’s presence or at least intended presence at the launch observation deck.
“The presence of the cellphone would suggest to me that Kim was there but off camera,” said Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists (read Panda’s analysis on the SLBM launch).
“Also, frankly, why would they have the whole leadership observation tent getup for a launch that he wasn’t attending?”
Rachel Minyoung Lee, senior analyst for NK News’s sister site NK Pro, suggested that because in “the state media readout, Kim Jong Un was not at the test site, the glass of juice on the table would have raised questions in the minds of those who noticed it.”
Lee said this case “lends credence to the widespread speculation yesterday that North Korea wanted to temper the overall tone of the missile test ahead of the DPRK-U.S. talks by placing distance between Kim Jong Un and the event.”
In the official KCNA readout of the test launch, Kim Jong Un was said to have “sent warm congratulations on behalf of the Central Committee of the WPK to the national defence scientific research units involved in the test-firing.”
Including the congratulations but omitting Kim’s presence would, theoretically, have “killed two birds with one stone,” Lee added.
“It showed that Kim Jong Un remained in charge, while not directly attributing this provocative event to the leader.”
On the other hand, Panda said that if Kim’s presence was indeed omitted from the coverage, it could have just been “done for optics considerations.”
“Perhaps he really wasn’t having a good hair day and didn’t want to be photographed, but I figure a launch can be rescheduled if the leader isn’t in the mood to observe,” he said.
In one notable example of North Korean media’s past experience in altering images, the AP recalled a photo republished from KCNA in 2011 after it was discovered that it was doctored to appear as if flood waters were higher than in reality.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun (left), KCTV (right)