Kim Jong-un is in the news again after reappearing in the public spotlight following a lengthy absence to attend a meeting of the politburo of the Korean Workers’ Party, appearing to have lost a substantial amount of weight.
In new photos and videos of the leader published by Korean Central Television – North Korea’s state-owned broadcaster, a slimmed-down Kim could be seen walking into the politburo’s meeting room and speaking to officials at a consultative meeting of the Central Committee discussing economic problems.
Kim Jong Un walking into the politburo meeting, from KCTV June 5. Also some hummingbird applause on the left there pic.twitter.com/Cpbum5Txgs— Colin Zwirko (@ColinZwirko) June 5, 2021
However, instead of simply reporting on the 39-year-old president’s apparent weight loss, mainstream media ranging from British tabloids to highbrow newspapers kicked off speculation suggesting that the weight loss might actually be a sign of major health problems.
Outlets including The Guardian and Bloomberg cited an analysis by NK News, a Seoul, South Korea-based news website founded by Chad O’Carroll, an ex-employee of the German Marshall Fund, a Washington-based think tank and grant organization funded by the US, German and Swedish governments, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, and others.
The NK News piece said that “Kim’s weight and health are closely watched by foreign intelligence agencies,” and quoted an MIT political scientist who suggested that if the weight loss is the result of a “health condition,” this might lead to “jockeying for his succession… happening behind the scenes” in the event of his sudden death.
The outlet confirmed the weight loss by carrying out a forensic analysis of pictures of Kim wearing his favourite Swiss watch, with photos taken between November 2020 and earlier this week showing that the length of the strap past the buckle was an indication of a slimmer wrist.
Mike Brodka, an intelligence officer for US Special Operations Command in South Korea, told NK News that Kim’s new look “may be a simple matter of a health lifestyle change,” but similarly suggested that it could also be “a more complex issue.”
“Right now, we do not know,” he admitted, while saying that the new images and footage of Kim raise “enough serious questions that we must pay attention to events over the next couple of months to find out.”
Several other outlets including the New York Post, Daily Beast and Business Insider featured similar language to the effect that the latest photos of a slimmer Kim could mean “a sign of deteriorating health” or a “health scare,” rather than just a new diet or change of lifestyle.
Kim’s weight is apparently a matter of concern for South Korea’s intelligence services, too, with spooks in Seoul reportedly involved in trying to calculate his weight down to the kilogram – estimating in November 2020 that he weighed 140 kgs, and was gaining “an average of 6 to 7 kilograms per year” since coming to power in 2011.
The latest speculation about Kim’s health follows rampant rumour-mongering last spring that he was seriously ill, had fallen into a coma or even died after a weeks-long absence from the public spotlight.
The latter regularly features sensational stories about North Korean executions by mortar fire (proven false), claims that Kim ordered members of the Wangjaesan Light Music Band killed (also proven false after the ‘dead’ musicians miraculously reappeared on live television), or that he poisoned his own aunt (those claims again proved to be fake news after she made a 'surprise appearance' with him at a concert).
Kim’s health is presumably a concern to the West due to his country’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, and intercontinental ballistic missiles theoretically capable of reaching any point in the continental United States in the event of war.
Former US President Donald Trump met with Kim multiple times in a bid to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, but despite the personal rapport that was established between the two men, made no substantial progress in limiting Pyongyang’s nuclear activities. The Biden administration has yet to reach a similar accord with the North Korean leader, with Joe Biden once comparing the Workers’ Party Chairman to Adolf Hitler, and North Korea calling Biden a “rabid dog” that needs to be “beaten to death with a stick.”
In March, Pyongyang told Washington that dialogue would be impossible unless the US “rolls back its hostile policy toward the DPRK.”