North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, formerly noted for his considerable girth among the starving population of his Communist nation, appeared much slimmer in photos released by North Korean state media Saturday.
This prompted speculation from foreign observers that Kim is either suffering from some malady or making a serious effort to lose weight and get healthier.
Kim’s health is a perennial concern because no one is entirely sure what would happen to his psychotic cult-of-personality dictatorship if he died. He is believed to be only 37 years old, but several previous disappearances have led outside observers to wonder if his unhealthy lifestyle of heavy eating, heavy drinking, and chain-smoking had finally caught up to him.
South Korean intelligence estimates Kim is 5 foot 7 inches tall and weighed well over 350 pounds at his peak. His father and grandfather are both thought to have died from heart attacks.
Since the North Korean regime is extremely secretive, especially about the dictator’s health and private activities, outside observers were left poring over clues such as the movements of his personal railroad train and the whereabouts of his sister Kim Yo-jong – sometimes thought to be the next dictator-in-waiting, or at least an interim leader if Kim Jong-un is incapacitated.
Kim eventually reappeared after each of his mysterious absences, often dogged by rumors that he was undergoing treatment for some unacknowledged medical condition. The photos fueling current speculation are the first time he appeared significantly thinner.
Kim Jong-un was out of the public eye for about a month before he reappeared at a Politburo meeting last week to discuss “urgent” state planning issues, South Korea’s NK News noted Tuesday. Although this particular absence did not draw as much international media attention as some previous ones did, it was actually the longest period Kim has been invisible since he assumed power in 2011.
At the meeting, Kim called for a larger plenary meeting of the ruling party’s Central Committee to “solve pending problems urgent for the economic work and people’s living” by correcting the “defects” in policy from the first half of 2021.
Analysts began buzzing over photos of Kim at the meeting when North Korean state media released them because Kim looked a good deal slimmer at a glance, and when photos of his left wrist were scrutinized, it appeared his watchband was drawn a few notches tighter than it was in March photos of the dictator. Kim favors a distinctive Portofino Automatic watch from IWC Schaffhausen valued at roughly $12,000.
— James Pearson (@pearswick) June 8, 2021
NK News quoted Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) political science professor Vipin Narang speculating that if Kim made the effort to slim down intentionally, it “likely improves his position at home” because it would suggest Kim feels secure enough in power to spend some time on self-improvement, and getting healthy means he plans to stick around for the long term.
Narang saw this as good news for North Korea’s neighbors such as South Korea and Japan since it brings some “predictability” and gives foreign leaders confidence Kim will be “running the show” for a long time to come.
On the other hand, if Kim’s dramatic weight loss was the result of illness, Narang said “the jockeying for his succession may already be happening behind the scenes, and that volatility could be trouble for the outside world.”
“It may be a simple matter of a healthy lifestyle change or a more complex issue. Right now, we do not know, but it raises enough serious questions that we must pay attention to events over the next couple of months to find out,” agreed U.S. Special Operations Command intelligence officer Mike Brodka.
“You have to use all available resources. For a very difficult country like North Korea, where they tightly control information, you have to do what you can,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) North Korea expert Su Mi Terry told the South China Morning Post on Thursday.
“Succession is very unclear if something were to happen to Kim Jong-un. We know he’s unhealthy. So we need to care,” Terry added.
Kim Yo-jong’s star seems to have fallen a bit since the height of speculation in the spring of 2020 that she had become the dictator’s partner in power, and might be poised to take over, shattering the blood-splattered glass ceiling of tyranny.
Kim Yo-jong remains an influential adviser, but North Korea watchers are currently speculating Kim Jong-un could be delegating more power and creating new high official positions, making day-to-day North Korean government operations less dependent upon direct control by a single dictator. The most optimistic analysts theorize Kim is trying to construct a more stable and “normal” government that will be more appealing to foreign diplomats and businessmen, or perhaps to reassure North Korea’s patrons in China.
The South Korean Unification Ministry declined to comment on Kim Jong-un’s health Thursday, although it said it is “analyzing photos when Kim Jong-un’s public activities are reported.”