Photoshop is a critical part of North Korea's propaganda machine. The brutal dictatorship, led by Kim Jong-un, would like us to believe a lot of things that just aren't true. That it has ballistic missile submarines, hovercraft, and even happy, well-fed citizens—all the product of shitty photo editing, which is partly why we know they're fake.
But the weirdest North Korea 'shops have to be the continued manipulation of Kim Jong-un's ears. This is something I never noticed until Dave Schmerler, an analyst at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, tweeted a photo of Kim's left ear. There's an obvious growth or lesion on his earlobe, but we'll get to that later.
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, responded to Schmerler, noting that North Korea has made a habit out of doctoring Kim's ears. I was intrigued.
Both Schmerler and Lewis were kind enough to humor my burgeoning obsession with Kim's ears. Could I see some examples? How do you know they've been altered? What is North Korea trying to hide?
"Over the past few years, we noticed that Kim Jong-un's ears often appear to have been altered along with other aspects of his appearance. We think these are just cosmetic alterations—changes to help Kim look a bit more handsome than he is in real life, much like a wedding photographer might make. He doesn't like his ears, or so it seems," Lewis told me in an email.
Using a forensic software called "Tungstène," researchers can spot digital alterations ("mathematical artifacts in the image file," Lewis said) in North Korea-produced photos. Tungstène employs a series of filters to reveal anomalies that might be lurking in seemingly virgin images. One of these filters lets analysts map chrominance noise, or color fluctuations, and is especially helpful when looking for retouching. Other filters show cloned pixels, compression, or sharpness. In some instances experts can even tell that photos have been opened and saved in Photoshop.
In the curious case of Kim's ears, the chrominance noise around his face, showing "lots of red colors," doesn't match the rest of his body. (These images, which were shared by Schmerler and Lewis, are more examples of how Kim's entire appearance, not just his ears, is often altered.) The man beside him, for comparison, exhibits less noise, and was likely unretouched.
"However, ears are complicated to interpret because they are complex bits of anatomy," Lewis warned, "and a busy part of a picture will often stand out from the rest of the image just because there is a lot of noise and other stuff going on."
It's important to note that Tungstène filters are meant to be used as a suite. This is something that Lewis stressed to me, also noting that shiny parts of an image, such as glasses, will throw higher chrominance noise, and should be interpreted knowing that.
The most accurate method "would be to process the images with all the filters available…and look for cross confirmation. This is what we call the 'filter convergence'; do not make your final conclusion relying on only one filter but look for a convergence of results," Roger Cozien, the engineer who created Tungstène in 2009 for the French Ministry of Defense, told me in an email.
But even without forensic software, evidence of Kim's doctored ears is clearly visible. In one sloppy photo, you can see the silhouette of his original ear, which was slimmed down and reshaped (notice the brim of the hat of the man behind him).
I was also curious about the lesion on Kim's ear from Schmerler's tweet. To my untrained eyes, it looks like a zit that's been picked at. Several dermatologists who I spoke to offered more education opinions.
One possibility, "and this would be a strange location, would be molluscum contagiosum, a viral infection of the skin that is highly contagious but not dangerous," Adam Friedman, an associate professor of dermatology at George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, told me.
"The two possibilities I favor the most would be a congenital sinus tract of some sort, or a cyst that goes deep under the skin. Both diagnoses would explain why it hasn't been removed, because the surgery would likely leave a noticeable scar, and he might prefer a small bump on the skin over a longer, but thin and flat scar," said Rany Jazayerli, a board-certified dermatologist who practices in the western suburbs of Chicago.
Both doctors agreed that all of these potential issues could be easily treated. While North Korea's healthcare system is outdated, sometimes relying on donated equipment from Russia and China, Kim probably has his own, qualified personal physicians.
Kim's ears will likely remain a mystery, but they were fun and cool to think about. North Korea, after all, has a long history of censoring its leaders' illnesses. The baseball-size growth on Kim Il-sung's neck was hardly ever seen. And researchers had to look hard for physical evidence of Kim Jong-il's alleged stroke.
"For Kim and his ears, what struck us was not any single picture of him, but the totality of them," Lewis said. "Images of his ears did not always show signs of alteration, but they did often enough that it caught our attention."