The North Korean state news agency has been caught manipulating photos from the memorial service of Kim Jong-il, but in such a minor and pointless way that it underscores the paranoid insanity of totalitarian regimes.

The picture above is one that was distributed by the official state news agency (and passed along to other outlets by the European Pressphoto Agency) taken high above Pyongyang as Kim's funeral procession makes its way past the crowd. Here's another shot, taken from the same vantage point, a split second earlier by Japanese agency Kyodo News and distributed by the Associated Press.

(Photo: Kyodo News via AP)

Notice the difference? Probably not at first, but check out the six men (one operating a TV camera) lingering off to the side in the lower left corner. Here's a comparison, put together by The New York Times: 

As the Associated Press noticed first, the six men were digitally removed, using a quick and crude Photoshop technique. It calls to mind Stalin's frequent practice of removing banished enemies from old photographs, only in a more mundane and clumsy way . The men weren't doing anything wrong. They weren't standing out or drawing attention to themselves in any way. There is no state secret being revealed by their presence. But someone, somewhere decided they didn't belong in the picture, so they were erased from history by the "clone" tool. (Check out the NYT Lens blog for a deeper analysis of the changes.)

Like the overly emotional crowds captured on television at the memorial, no one really knows if this change was mandated from on high or done routinely, out of the ongoing understanding that this behavior is what is expected of you in an authoritarian culture. There was no reason at all to do it other than to keep up appearances, but appearances are always vitally important to dictators. In fact, it's the organizing principle of North Korean society — looking like a strong, well-run nation to outside observers supersedes the actual building of a strong, well-run nation. Getting caught in a such silly lie is just another reminder that when dealing with a totalitarian state, the truth is almost never what it seems.

UPDATE: J.J. Gould has been tipped off about another manipulation in photo: an apparent 9-foot tall supersoldier standing in the crowd.