June 30, 2021 9:30:57 am
Written by Choe Sang-Hun
All they had was TV footage — and a wristwatch.
When North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, re-emerged this month after a four-week hiatus from public view, outside analysts and news outlets began studying state news media for clues to explain his latest absence.
Right off the bat, they noticed that Kim, 37, looked considerably thinner than before. After comparing appearances by Kim on North Korean television in recent months, analysts noticed the brown leather band of his wristwatch looked a few notches tighter, supporting the idea that he had lost weight.
But that was as much as they had to go on.
Kim’s health, like the North Korean regime itself, is shrouded in such secrecy that experts are often forced to divine clues using pure guess work. Did he have a health scare? Or did the obese dictator of the world’s most isolated country finally decide to go on a diet?
These questions — and the obsessive attention to mundane details like Kim’s wristwatch — may seem like the idle prattle of celebrity gossip. But serious analysts say they must use every bit of information available to try and answer an even more serious question: What would happen to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and its people, who have been taught to worship Kim, if he were suddenly incapacitated?
Over the weekend, North Korean state media offered its own spin on Kim’s weight loss when it reported ordinary people’s reaction to seeing him at a nationally televised art performance.
“What made people, including myself, most heartbroken when we watched the show was how emaciated Dear Leader Kim Jong Un has looked,” a middle-aged North Korean man in a straw hat told the North’s state-run Central Television. “Everybody says they could hardly fight back tears.”
Kim, even after his weight loss, isn’t exactly svelte. He could easily weigh twice as much as many North Korean adults, according to some analysts. (One study estimated that North Korean refugees weighed about 115 pounds when they fled their home country, chronically stricken by food shortages.)
In the North, where all news reports are carefully censored and scripted by government propagandists, it is highly unusual for the state media to mention Kim’s physical appearance.
“His weight loss was so visible that there was no way North Korean people would not have noticed it,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. “The regime had to confirm the obvious and signal to the people that all was well with the leader in order to prevent a rumor about his health running out of control.”
North Korea also used the occasion to spread propaganda at a time when the country is facing a looming food shortage. The regime wanted to show the people that Kim has been struggling to guide the country through sanctions, the pandemic and natural disasters, Cheong said. When Kim attended the art performance, he wore an ill-fitting baggy white shirt, as if to highlight his selfless weight loss.
When Kim took over North Korea after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011, he was believed to weigh 198 pounds, according to South Korean intelligence officials. But they said that Kim, about 5 feet 7 inches, kept putting on weight, weighing as much as 308 pounds last year.
His boyish youthfulness has been replaced by an often tired and puffy look, raising questions about his health and the future of the Kim dynasty. Kim has no child old enough to inherit the reins should he suddenly die. North Korea has been ruled by the Kim family for three generations.
South Korean and American intelligence officials are believed to have gained valuable insight into Kim’s health when he met with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, and former President Donald Trump, several times in 2018 and 2019.
When Kim accompanied Moon on a short hike to the peak of Mt. Baekdu following their meeting in Pyongyang in 2018, he was breathing hard, according to video footage from South Korean TV reporters. Moon, 68, hardly seemed to break a sweat.
“Aren’t you running short of breath?” Kim asked Moon when they later rode a cable car together.
“I am fine,” Moon said.
“I am so envious of you!” said Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, who joined for the outing.
Ri has complained to South Korean visitors that she has tried to persuade her husband to quit his bad habits like chain-smoking. In North Korea, no one except Ri can dare give such advice to Kim, who has executed senior officials, including his uncle, in political purges, analysts say.
During the cable car ride, Moon and his wife, Kim Jung-sook, diplomatically explained the health benefits of regular exercise while Kim appeared to look out the window uninterested.
Both Kim’s father and grandfather died of heart trouble. That family history has helped feed speculation about Kim’s health whenever he takes leave from the public for weeks at a time.
One such absence in 2014 prompted rumors that Kim might have been grounded by a severe hangover, gout or even a coup. When Kim resurfaced in news media photos, South Korean reporters and analysts noticed a small, golf-cart-like vehicle in the corner of one picture, and speculated that Kim was having trouble walking unassisted. North Korean state TV later showed him walking with a limp and a cane, saying that he was “not feeling well.”
Last year, another disappearance from public view triggered rampant speculation from outside observers that Kim was “in grave danger” and had possibly suffered a heart surgery or was “brain-dead.” Kim soon resurfaced looking like his old self, but that didn’t stop South Korean reporters from noticing a dark spot near his wrist. Could it be where the doctors slid in a tube to conduct a bypass surgery?
Kim’s health remains a time bomb, said Lee Byong-chul, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.
“You don’t need an expert to tell you that Kim Jong Un has a health problem: Just consider his weight, complexion, gait, breathing and chain-smoking,” Lee said. “And we have no clue who’s going to command and control North Korea’s nuclear weapons when he is gone.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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