The fate of what seemed to be Kim Jong-il’s favorite painting—a mural depicting a choppy sea—is not yet on the media radar. When presidents and other world leaders came calling, Kim and his visiting dignitaries often posed for stiff-backed portraits in front of this nautical mural.
In August 2009, Bill Clinton landed in Pyongyang to secure the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two American journalists who had been held for months in North Korea. But before they could depart, Clinton and his entourage had to sit for a portrait with Kim Jong-il. This may have been the last time that the painting was dusted off for foreign visitors—at least, it’s the last one Slate has discovered.
Correction: This article originally misstated the name of one of the two American journalists held in North Korea in 2009. It was Laura Ling, not her sister Lisa Ling, who was detained along with Euna Lee.
Photograph by KNS/AFP/Getty Images.
A Toast to Diplomacy
There are several variations on the sea-mural-with-Kim photo: the sitting-down-with-perfect-posture pic, the “action” shot of the individual toasting with Kim, the dining-in-front-of-the-painting pose, and the standing shot.
In October 2000, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright joined Kim Jong-il for a toast in front of his favorite painting. She also stood for a rigid portrait. This may have been the only time that the famously short KJI was able to stand beside a visiting dignitary without a booster box: Albright reportedly stands a petite 4 feet 10 inches.
Photograph by Chien-Min Chung/AFP/Getty Images.
Sunshine Policy, Rough Waters Ahead
From 1998-2008, South Korea’s government had a “Sunshine Policy” toward the North. The policy was intended to promote warmer relations between the two nations, still officially at war. The South gave the North more aid, and the two countries worked together on some economic projects, for instance. During that time, in June 2000, Kim met with then-South Korean president Kim Dae-jung for a three-day summit. The two men clinked glasses in front of the sea mural in a pose almost identical to Kim’s photograph with Albright.
Photographs by Newsmakers.
One Peninsula, Two Late Leaders
In October 2007, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Dae-jung’s successor, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, also posed together before North Korea’s most powerful mural. The following year, the Sunshine Policy came to an end as Roh left office. Soon afterward, Roh committed suicide after being accused of taking part in a bribery scandal.
A 2010 report claims that the Sunshine Policy neither softened North Korea’s aggressive behavior nor improved lives for average North Koreans.
Photograph by Getty Images.
In another standing shot, Russia’s then-president Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Kim in July 2000. We bet that just out of frame, Kim is standing on a box to look as tall as Putin, who at a reported 5 feet 7 inches is a relative giant.
Photograph by ITAR-TASS/AFP/Getty Images.
Kim Jong-il dines with Chinese President Hu Jintao in October 2005. China, long one of North Korea’s only allies, will likely be concerned about the isolated country’s future in a post-Jong-il era.
Photograph by KCNA via Korean News Service/AFP/Getty Images.
Same Mural, Same Pose, Different Guest
Kim Jong-il poses with China's special envoy and former Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan in October 2006. This photograph gives us a good glimpse of the flowered carpet just beneath the mural. Kim Jong-il must have loved nature as much as he did cognac.