There they are, sitting side by side in a photographic balance of power. President Bill Clinton looking his sartorial best and Chairman Kim Jong Il looking his janitorial worst. This photo released yesterday by the Korean Central News Agency, is designed to demand the respect the totalitarian state of North Korean so desperately wants. This tableau is so perfectly choreographed that it begs visual analysis.
The President's delegation, appearing like pallbearers, is standing at attention. The flanking members are striking the classic "fig leaf" pose. The Premier's notorious hair do is fortunately subdued against the dark suit behind him, worn by an aid that is suspiciously diverting his eyes. Is he trying to avoid looking down on the comb-over before him?
An international manager at IBM once told me that whenever they did business in Asia they always sent their tallest salesmen as an intimidation strategy. Hmmm? It may not be intentional but in the President's team, even the woman interpreter, looks like she would tower over the diminutive Mr. Kim. John Podesta, standing behind Mr. Clinton's left shoulder, might be the exception, but looking like something out of a Bram Stoker novel, he is sufficiently scary.
The real star in this picture is the tremendous painting in the background. It dominates this cast of characters. Is it a raging symbol of strength? Is it a tsunami of power? If it's to send a message that North Korea is a force to be reckoned with, they should probably lose the tacky casino carpeting in the foreground. I love this painting. It lends energy to a pose that could serve as a model for a wax recreation in a Pyongyang Madame Tussaud's.
Judging by this photo, one would never believe that this was to commemorate the triumphant release of two American journalists who were facing twelve years of hard labor in a North Korean prison for illegally entering the country. This event is simply a footnote to Mr. Kim's larger political message.
Fortunately, Laura Ling and Euna Lee were probably boarding their freedom flight home as this shot was taken. President Clinton probably knew this. I sense a twinkle in his eye and pride in his heart at being on the international stage he so enjoys.
Ken Carbone is among America's most respected graphic designers, whose work is renowned for its clarity and intelligence. He has built an international reputation creating outstanding programs for world-class clients, including Tiffany & Co., W.L Gore, Herman Miller, PBS, Christie's, Nonesuch Records, the W Hotel Group and The Taubman Company. His clients also include celebrated cultural institutions such as the Museé du Louvre, The Museum of Modern Art, The Pierpont Morgan Library, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the High Museum of Art.