Posts share doctored image of 'South Korean president with NATO leaders'

Copyright © AFP 2017-2023. All rights reserved.

Korean-language social media posts have repeatedly shared a doctored image of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol apparently standing at the centre of a group photo of NATO heads of state at the Madrid summit in June 2022. The posts suggested NATO purposefully placed Yoon in the centre to celebrate him "as a key global leader". Yoon, however, has replaced NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the manipulated photo. Yoon was separately photographed at the summit with four other Indo-Pacific leaders who attended as observers.

"The fact that NATO made President Yoon stand in the centre means that it regards him as a key global leader," reads a Facebook post from March 15, 2023.

The post goes on to credit Yoon with the "rising" prestige of South Korea and says that NATO never extended such a gesture to former South Korean president Moon Jae-in, referring to him by a pejorative nickname.

The image shows what appears to be a group photo of NATO leaders at the 2022 Madrid Summit. Yoon appears to be standing in the centre, flanked by US President Joe Biden on his left and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on his right.

Screenshot of the misleading claim shared on Facebook. Captured on March 15, 2023.

Yoon became the first South Korean leader to attend a NATO summit in Madrid, Spain, from June 29 to 30, 2022, as an observer state alongside other Indo-Pacific leaders from Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

The post was shared online as Yoon prepared to embark on a series of official visits to Japan on March 16 and the United States on April 26.

Comments left in the posts indicated several users believed the image genuinely showed Yoon at the centre of a NATO leaders' group photo.

"President Yoon is indeed unique. He is the pride of not only South Korea but the entire world," wrote one user.

"Mr President you look so splendid, the greatest in the world. I am rooting for you and will always support you," another wrote.

Similar claims were shared alongside the same doctored image here on Facebook, here on Naver Band and here on DC Inside, a popular South Korean forum.

NATO leaders photo

Through a reverse image search on Google, AFP found a similar photo published by Getty Images as part of a collection of images from the Madrid summit on June 29, 2022.

The image includes a lengthy caption that names every NATO leader seen in order of their position in the photo.

Instead of Yoon, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg can be seen in the centre of the photo between Sanchez and Biden and is named in the caption.

Below is a screenshot comparison of the doctored photo shared on Facebook (left) and the original photo published by Getty Images on June 29 (right):

Screenshot comparison of the doctored photo shared on Facebook (left) and the original photo published by Getty Images on June 29 (right)

NATO's website, as well as the US Embassy in Spain's website also includes multiple official photographs of the leaders posing as a group, featuring Stoltenberg standing in the centre at the front row.

The group photo was taken at the beginning of the summit after all attending NATO heads of state arrived at the meeting's venue in the IFEMA fairgrounds, as seen in live footage of the summit streamed by British tabloid The Sun on YouTube on June 29.

The video shows NATO leaders lining up one by one on the stage for a group photo, until they are all in place at the video's 28-minute, 20-second mark.

Screenshot of The Sun's live footage of the summit on YouTube

Stoltenberg can be seen standing at the centre between Sanchez and Biden. The group poses for around half a minute until the leaders exit the stage together.

Indo-Pacific leaders

A separate search on NATO's website found the image of Yoon was taken from another photograph of the summit published by the organisation on June 29.

Titled "NATO Secretary General with Heads of State and Government of Indo-Pacific Partners," the photo shows Stoltenberg posing in another group photo alongside Australia, Japan and New Zealand's prime ministers, as well as Yoon on the far-right.

Below is a screenshot comparison of Yoon in the doctored photo (left) and the corresponding original photo published by NATO on June 29 (right):

Screenshot comparison of a closeup of Yoon's image in the doctor's photograph (left) and the original photo published by NATO on June 29 (right)

The itinerary for the Madrid summit for June 29 published on NATO's website shows the group photo of NATO heads of state was taken at 10:25, while Stoltenberg's photo with the Indo-Pacific Partner leaders, including Yoon, was taken at 14:55 the same day.

The Sun's live footage also shows Yoon arriving at the summit venue along with other Indo-Pacific leaders at the video's three-hour mark.