Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Pyongyang Giant: North Korea’s Photoshop Mystery

This topic is only very tangentially within the purview of this blog.  The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a.k.a. North Korea, is in one sense a secessionist portion of the original People’s Republic of Korea (covering the whole Korean peninsula) which succeeded, in 1945, the Japanese Empire’s occupation of the peninsula.  The Republic of Korea, a.k.a. South Korea, still does not diplomatically recognize North Korea, and vice versa.

However, even though this blog does not intend to treat the ins and outs of inter-Korean politics as part of its bailiwick, I still feel that I must chime in on the subject of the Pyongyang Giant.  No one calls him that but me, but I figure if Cardiff can have a (phony) giant, so can the capital of the most absurd dictatorship in the world.  Or is he phony?

Some of you have seen the pictures already, and there isn’t actually much more to it than the pictures.

Officially released photos from the December 28, 2011, funeral of North Korea’s mad hermit dictator Kim Jong-Il show what appears to be a more than eight-foot-tall (2.438-meter) soldier (the first reports in Western media said nine feet tall) in a row of military observers at the funeral procession—in the back row, naturally.  The North Korean government has not commented on the photo, but reaction in Western media has been baffled and incredulous.

The first question that comes to mind is whether it could be real.  When dealing with a regime that claims that Kim Jong-Il was born amidst supernatural omens like double rainbows and the spontaneous turning of winter into spring, that he invented the hamburger, and that he once shot five holes-in-one in a single round of golf, no information that is released in any form can be taken at face value.

It seems to me that the North Korean government is perfectly capable of faking photos for the purpose either of scaring the United States into thinking it has the capacity to produce giant super-soldiers or of countering the common (and accurate) perception in the outside world that North Korea’s economy is such a shambles that a huge portion of the population is stunted from malnutrition.  A doctored photo of a giant soldier is exactly the sort of misguided propaganda stunt that a regime as isolated and warped as North Korea’s would regard as a credible information campaign.  Indeed, Kim’s funeral procession also included instances of Photoshopped illusions such as the deletion of a camera crew from one photo, as comparisons of different officially released images reveals.

However, the giant soldier is seen from several different angles, and the differently angled images correspond much as they would if he were really there.  So, if these photos were doctored, someone put a lot of trouble into doctoring them.

It should also be noted that humans that grow to heights of eight or nine feet tend to have so many attendant health problems that normally they would be excused from military service—though perhaps not in North Korea, where such a recruit might be a handy propaganda tool.

Some observers suggest that the soldier may be Ri Myung Hun, the 44-year-old, 7' 8.5" (2.35-meter) tall North Korean basketball player, who is sometimes called the tallest person in the world, and certainly the tallest professional basketball player.  But the figure in the photos seems to be significantly taller even than that.

Ri Myung Hun

Eastern Asia is already known to physical anthropologists as a part of the world where some of the planet’s tallest individuals and some of the shortest can be found, sometimes from the same ethnic group or community.

However, it seems odd that the world-record-crazed North Korean propaganda machine would not already have boasted to the world of having produced the tallest living person (a record generally attributed to one Sultan Kösen of Turkey, who stands 8'3" (2.515 meters)).

The possibility remains that the Pyongyang Giant is what he appears to be—a North Korean soldier who stands somewhere between eight and a half and nine feet tall.  If so, then just think how tall he would’ve been without the malnutrition.

[You can read more about sovereignty and independence movements both famous and obscure in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]

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