Trench warfare: Kim Jong-un debuts leather look as he oversees missile test

Justin McCurry in Tokyo
Photograph: 朝鮮通信社/AP

Kim Jong-un’s recent wardrobe choices have sparked speculation that after eight years of paying sartorial homage to his popular grandfather, North Korea’s leader is attempting to craft an image of his own.

South Korean media commented on the change after Kim was seen last week wearing a leather trench coat during the test of a multiple rocket launcher.

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The trench coat was the latest of several indications that he has decided to embrace a more eclectic personal style.

He had previously displayed a penchant for horn-rimmed glasses and black Mao suits that appeared to be an attempt to style himself in the image of his grandfather – and North Korea’s founder - Kim Il-sung, right down to his severe short-back-and-sides hairstyle.

Kim Jong-un in June 2019, wearing his more traditional dark suit. Photograph: Susan Walsh/AP

Twenty-five years after his death, the older Kim is still revered by North Koreans for what regime propagandists describe as his leading role in ending Japanese colonial rule and founding North Korea in 1948.

Days before his dark trench coat made an appearance, Kim Jong-un sported an ivory-coloured version and a blue shirt while giving “field guidance” at a military base on an island near the maritime border with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un inspects defences on Changrin Islet in an image released on 25 November. Photograph: KCNA/EPA

As a young and untested leader when he succeeded his father in December 2011, Kim consolidated his grip on power through several rounds of purges that included the execution of his uncle, while promoting others, such as his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, to positions of power within the ruling party and military.

With his position secure, he can now begin to craft a new image that sets him apart from his predecessors, according to Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University.

“Kim appears to be striving to build his own image and sphere as much as he can,” Kim told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

While some observers attributed Kim’s fashion choices to simple personal preferences, Yonhap speculated that the change in style could herald shifts on the diplomatic front, less than a month before a deadline North Korea has set for the US to break the deadlock over stalled denuclearisation talks.