South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, about to shake hands at their first-ever meeting, at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, on April 27, 2018. (Korea Summit Press Pool/Reuters)
Last week’s summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un produced an official declaration that is now being studied by experts all around the world. But more mundane-seeming details are also being devoured.
For example, one South Korean newspaper published an article this week that was largely based upon photographs of Kim and Moon’s shoes.
A reasonable reader might wonder if such details matter, but keep this in mind: despite being the supreme leader of North Korea, many aspects of Kim’s life are unknown. Until his unannounced trip to Beijing in March, there was no indication he had even left the country since taking over from his late father in 2011.
That means virtually all the images and video of Kim scoured by foreign analysts since he took power have come from North Korean state media. Those outlets are unlikely to show Kim in anything but the most flattering light — indeed, many photographs of Kim appeared to have been digitally altered.
An accurate image of or detail about Kim could provide some important clues about his health and other physical characteristics. These are details that could actually be useful for crafting policy toward North Korea: If Kim were in seriously bad health, for instance, it would raise questions about his leadership and the line of succession in Pyongyang.
There were some clues in state media photographs. Kim was obviously overweight, and the ever-present ashtray in most of his photos made clear he was a heavy-smoker (even if North Korean citizens were advised to not smoke). But often the photographs raised more questions than they answered. For example, why was Kim limping in footage from 2014? And why exactly would North Korea digitally edit his left ear in images, as some experts suspected?
With his visit to Beijing, Kim had opened himself up to media coverage from Chinese state media. It wasn’t until he headed to the truce village of Panmunjom in Korea’s demilitarized zone last week, however, that he really exposed himself to a free media. Scrutiny of the images was intense: Media outlets hired lip-readers to look at footage of Kim and Moon speaking privately to find out what they said (they talked partly about President Trump, the lip-readers found).
Which brings us to the shoes. Historically, height is thought to be a bone of contention for the Kim dynasty. Some Western sources say that Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, was 5 feet 2 inches tall and wore lifts in his shoes to make himself appear taller. The younger Kim is commonly listed as being around 5 feet 7, though it is not clear where this figure comes from.
Chosun Ilbo, one of South Korea’s most popular newspapers, decided to investigate the mystery. The paper gave footage of Kim meeting Moon to seven experts, who spent hours poring over the footage to see what it could say about the North Korean leader’s physical features.
Perhaps the biggest revelation was in Kim’s footwear. In videos and photographs, they found that Kim appeared to be less than an inch shorter than Moon, who is recorded as being a little over 5 feet 6 inches tall. But they noticed something strange with his shoes: a high slope on the front of the shoe seemed to suggest that Kim was wearing insoles that were pushing his feet upward. One expert suggested that this meant the height difference between the Korean leaders was actually nearly 2 inches and possibly more, making Kim only 5-foot-4.
There was more bad news: Chosun Ilbo noted that at Kim’s apparent height and weight, he would have an unhealthily high Body Mass Index of 45. He also appeared to be out of breath when he walked around, though the experts noted that this could have been due to nerves. But there was one glimmer of hope for the North Korean leader: No one noticed anything amiss with his ear.