Pudgy leader for North Korea?

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LISA MULLINS: North Korea's government held a coming out party of sorts last week for Kim Jong-un. The 20-something-year-old son of the current leader Kim Jong-Il was elevated to four-star general and given a new high-ranking political party title. But we still don't know much about him. Except maybe that he's been eating well. That's based on photos and video of the young, rather chubby-cheeked leader-in-training. Now, that may not be the right image for a country where millions have suffered through famine. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.

JASON STROTHER: Before he defected to South Korea in 2002, Sun Mu used to paint pictures of soldiers killing Americans. Now this former propaganda artist creates images of North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung and his son, current leader Kim Jong-Il, that probably would've gotten him executed back home. Menacing looking portraits of the two dictators with daggers in hand lean against his studio's walls. Sun Mu says he's already thinking about how to portray Kim Jong-un now that the world knows what he looks like.


STROTHER: I was really surprised to see how Kim Jong-un looks exactly like Kim Il Sung, even his haircut is the same, Sun Mu says. I doubt he's really ready to become the leader, so I imagine the North Korean government gave him that image to look like his grandfather. But that image didn't sit well with Sun Mu. Back in the 1990s, when he was a university student in North Korea, the country was devastated by famine and aid groups say millions died. Sun Mu says he had to steal food to survive and saw dead children and homeless people all over his town. So when he caught a glimpse of the round face and protruding belly of Kim Jong-un, Sun Mu says he got angry.


STROTHER: When I saw Kim Jong-un and how fat he was, I felt like I wanted to kill him, Sun Mu says. So many people have suffered from hunger and from North Korea's bad leadership. North Korean rulers have always been a bit on the heavy side. But Sun Mu says that even during the famine, their leaders' corpulence was never held against them. It's a good thing to be fat in North Korea.


STROTHER: He says in North Korea there aren't many fat people. But we think heavy people have generous personalities and they look more warm. Even as people were starving to death, Pyongyang did close to nothing to hide the girth of its leaders, says Brian Myers, author of The Cleanest Race; How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters. Being thin, he says, is something reserved for the North's enemies.

BRIAN MYERS: To be very thin is to look narrow minded, or perhaps unreliable, not so nice. And in fact, Americans have always been depicted in North Korean visual arts as being very, very thin people.

STROTHER: But Myers says Kim Jong-un might actually be too fat, especially considering his young age. And North Koreans might start asking questions about what he was doing while they were scavenging for food. Myers predicts the North's propaganda machine will try to divert suspicion by producing heroic tales about Kim Jong-un.

MYERS: How he worked selflessly to improve the lives of the people. We have already heard that he has been associated with construction campaigns, such as the campaign to build 100,000 new apartments in Pyongyang and so on. And I expect to hear lots of dramatic stories about his work in cold weather in difficult conditions and so on. And that sort of thing is going to counter or should counter the impressions that he did nothing but eat all that time.

STROTHER: Myers adds that it'll be even tougher for the North to cover Kim Jong-un up if suspicions are confirmed that the young heir-apparent spent some of that time living, and eating, in Switzerland. For The World, I'm Jason Strother in Seoul.