TV Asahi claimed to have an exclusive photo of Kim Jong Il's youngest son and heir apparent. Turned out to be a construction worker in South Korea.
The photograph was considered a journalistic coup, a recent image of the elusive 26-year-old son of North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il, who has reportedly been named the next leader of the secretive state.
The Internet snapshot released by a Tokyo television station purportedly showed an adult Kim Jong Un -- whose last known photo was taken at age 12 -- as a spitting image of his notorious father, right down to the moon face, coiffed hair and oversize sunglasses.
Trouble was, it wasn't the younger Kim at all, but a pudgy 40-year-old South Korean construction worker who also operates a website for fortunetellers. He says he is baffled as to how the Japanese got hold of his Internet image.
"I'm speechless," Bae Seok-bum told South Korea's Yonhap news service. "I only uploaded the picture to share with the members of my community how similar my face was to that of Kim Jong Il. I didn't think it would go this far."
The photo has quickly become an Internet sensation in Japan, South Korea and even China, dispersed via e-mail by amateur North Korea watchers.
Kim Jong Un is the youngest and favorite of three sons born to Kim Jong Il, who reportedly intensified his search for a successor after suffering a stroke last year. The youngest Kim was born to his father's third wife, the late Ko Yong Hi, a former dancer.
He reportedly likes to ski and play basketball and is an ardent fan of former NBA star Michael Jordan. He used a pseudonym to attend a boarding school in Switzerland. Since his return to North Korea as a teenager, he has not been photographed publicly, according to press reports.
South Korean news media say Kim favors his youngest son because he is most like him in both looks and personality.
South Korean legislators said this month that they had received classified information that Kim Jong Il had officially named Kim Jong Un as his successor.
Little is known about the young man. But a report by Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Inter-Korean Relations Studies Program at the Sejong Institute near Seoul, says he already suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes and that he speaks English.
Now Bae has been mistakenly linked to the infamous ruling family. He's being hounded by reporters, and in a brief interview with The Times said he is disturbed by all the attention.
"I don't even take lots of calls from reporters," he said.
Bae's day job is in construction. After work, he runs his website. He told reporters that he posted a photo on the site that was taken of him last year in a rural area of South Korea.
The snapshot of him in a white T-shirt earned him a nickname among friends: "General Secretary Kim Jong Il."
During a broadcast Wednesday, Japan's TV Asahi said the station had received information from an unnamed source who had met the younger Kim numerous times. It said the source told it that the authenticity of the photo was "90%."
The station superimposed the eyes of Kim Jong Il over the sunglasses in the photo to enhance the likeness.
"His fleshy face and shape look just like Kim Jong Il," a newsreader commented. "Also, there's a unique hairstyle with full volume that resembles his father's. . . . Aren't big sunglasses the tradition of the North Korean royal family?"
A day after its "scoop," TV Asahi retracted its claim to having an exclusive image of the young man.
"We have come to believe that there is high probability that the picture is of another person," it said.
Park is a news assistant in The Times' Seoul Bureau.