Putin-Kim meeting provided rare glimpses of hermit kingdom

Putin-Kim meeting provided rare glimpses of hermit kingdom

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center right, walk the red carpet together upon Putin’s arrival at Pyongyang International Airport, North Korea . Source: AP

Images from Pyongyang emerged quickly, remarkable for their variety – glimpses of North Korea in near real time showing its leader, Kim Jong Un, grinning and grinning with Russian President Vladimir Putin and giving him a tour of the country’s capital. one of the countries. the least accessible nations in the world.

For those following the events of the Kim family’s three-generation rule, the coverage of the Kim-Putin meeting this week – visuals released only by each government’s respective propaganda arms – represented an extraordinary wave of points of interest. view of a nation where images that seem even remotely improvised, unverified and edited ad nauseam, are rare.

The two men walked the red carpet at Kim Il Sung Square, named after the grandfather of the current leader and founder of the nation. They looked at a sea of ​​children carrying balloons. They reviewed a military parade and observed a crowd waving pom-poms. They saw – but were not shown interacting with – groups of North Korean citizens who, if the past is any indication, were meticulously screened before approaching the scene.

These images were vivid and abundant, but they represented the predictable result of an experienced propaganda apparatus.

Far more striking were the moments in between that managed to cut through – also carefully calibrated, but revealing a little more about the North and its leader than most images. Based on photos and videos produced by Russian and North Korean state media (independent journalists were not given access to cover Putin’s visit), the images were numerous and varied.

Here, Kim showed Putin a bust he had made of the Russian leader as a gift. Here the two leaders hugged each other, looked at horses and Korean Pungsan dogs, leaned in for casual conversations, laughed during a “gala concert.” And here are cutaways from the background of a state dinner – featuring camera carts, rooms before leaders enter, and other exterior-style shots that appear less often in imagery nationality of North Korea.

One of the most striking sequences is that of the video from the Kremlin swimming pool, filmed just before Putin’s arrival in Pyongyang. It showed Kim on the tarmac, hands behind his back, silhouetted against the airport gate and a scarlet welcome sign behind him, pacing and awaiting the presence of his counterpart. It was easy to imagine that Kim Jong Un was not, for a moment, the excited leader of an authoritarian government but a tired man waiting for a plane at nightfall.

Perhaps most notable was the sense that all of this was happening to the world almost in real time – primarily through Russian imagery. The North Korean government’s own images typically portray its leader and nation as stilted, rigid and slightly out of sync — and the photos usually appear well after an event has taken place.

Also at stake: images from the North’s main propaganda outlet, the Korean Central News Agency, have sometimes been digitally manipulated before transmission; rigorous control is required before it can be used.

Part of what made this week’s images so compelling was the occasional appearance of spontaneity. The vast majority of images coming out of North Korea appear staged – because a lot of them are. Awkward and deferential people usually surround Kim, just like her father and grandfather. And often, Kim himself seems awkward.

But in these images and sequences, amid the fast-paced nature of the week’s events, that sense of setting sometimes seemed absent. And this made North Korea appear more like other countries, rather than reinforcing the “hermit kingdom” image.

Photos and videos can alienate us. They can bring us closer. They can humanize. They can show many people places that only a few see. And sometimes, collectively, they can offer some small revelations about a place, its people, even its ruler.

To look at this week’s photos and videos from Pyongyang is to learn a little more about what motivates North Korea – even if that was not the primary intention of the propagandists who created them.

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