A portrait of Kim Jong Un placed in public between those of his father and grandfather

A portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been publicly displayed alongside those of his father and grandfather for the first time, sparking speculation about the message it sends.

Portraits of the leaders are at the core of North Korea's state-sponsored personality cult, which has supported the Kim family's rule since the country's founding in 1948.

Almost all homes and public offices in North Korea must have portraits of Kim's father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung, but a portrait of the younger Kim was not a requirement until recently.

On Wednesday, North Korea's state media released a photo showing a large portrait of Kim Jong Un hanging on the wall of the building alongside those of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, during his recent visit to the Central Personnel Training School of the ruling Workers' Party.

Longtime North Korea watchers say it is the first time North Korea has released images showing a portrait of Kim Jong Un placed alongside those of the two late North Korean rulers since the younger Kim took power in late 2011.

Placing his portrait next to those of his father and grandfather would suggest that he wishes to raise his status to a level similar to that of the previous two leaders, who command strong and loyal followings and are regarded as gods.

The 40-year-old has yet to achieve the same level of cult of personality accorded to his predecessors: they are commemorated in numerous statues and mosaics across North Korea, their birthdays two of the country's biggest holidays.

Experts believe that now it can be expected that Kim Jong Un's portrait will now probably be hung on the walls of all households, while his birthday may also be designated as an official holiday.

The place where his portrait was recently installed is the highest educational facility of the ruling party. Experts say it shows that "Kim Jong Un wants to start a new era with new people."

Observers say Kim needs stronger domestic support from his leadership as his country struggles to overcome economic difficulties and lingering tensions with the United States over its nuclear program.

In January, Kim announced he would no longer pursue peaceful reunification with South Korea, a decades-long policy nurtured by his father and grandfather.

The outlook for Kim's push is not clear, although he likely thinks he has consolidated his power and built his nuclear and other military programs strong enough to ascend into the national mythology.

Kim's main push for a larger nuclear arsenal has prompted the imposition of sanctions, primarily from the United States, which, along with border closures during the pandemic, were believed to have severely damaged the North's fragile economy.

Kim subsequently admitted policy failures, as his vow that North Koreans would "never have to tighten their belts again" remained unfulfilled.

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