North Korea’s state television has aired a rare comment about Kim Jong-un’s “emaciated” condition after footage of the slimmed down autocrat earlier this month prompted international speculation about his health.
In a report by KCTV, an unnamed resident of the capital, Pyongyang, claimed everyone was upset by his weight loss. “Seeing our respected general secretary looking emaciated breaks our people’s hearts the most,” he said. “Everyone is talking about how their tears welled up immediately.”
Commentary about the Kim dynasty’s personal lives is normally forbidden, leading analysts to suggest that the message was calculated to frame the reclusive leader’s changing physique as a sign of his devotion to the nation at a time of spiralling food shortages and economic crisis.
The impoverished, nuclear-armed country has been increasingly isolated after it sealed its borders to protect its ailing health system from the pandemic, causing trade of food, fuel and fertiliser with neighbouring China to plummet.
Earlier this month, Kim formally acknowledged at a meeting of senior leaders that the food situation was now “getting tense” after grain targets had also been adversely impacted by last year’s typhoons.
The unusually frank admission coincided with a surprise reduction in his normally robust physique, revealed in footage that showed his clothes were noticeably baggier and his watch strap tighter than before.
Known as a heavy smoker and drinker, the young leader has long been obese, and according to one assessment by South Korean intelligence, he piled on some 50kg between 2012 and 2020.
His health is closely watched by the international community as his sudden death would raise critical questions about succession and stability of the country and its nuclear weapons and missiles programmes.
His sudden drop in weight this month added to concerns about potential serious health problems, but the latest footage could offer an alternative explanation of an attempt to portray an image of a hard-working leader who is empathetic to his people’s struggles.
“The focus on his weight loss could simply represent a shift to a healthier lifestyle for Kim, and a way of asserting domestic control,” said Edward Howell, a lecturer in politics and North Korea expert at the University of Oxford.
He said it was unlikely Kim would have chaired a recent meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party committee if he was seriously ill.
“Kim has made clear that North Korea is going through grave food shortages, and the people should prepare for tough times. He admitted the failure of his Five-Year economic plan earlier in the year,” he said.
“A thinner leader may also bolster domestic legitimacy in the eyes of the people: he can be seen as a man of the people, even if the reality is far from this.”