Is Kim Jong Un sick, is he pretending to be hungry or is North Korea‘s dictator feeling a bit of the famine that’s gripping his people?
That’s the big question hanging over new photos and reports out of North Korea, amid a major food shortage in the country.
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Outside observers recently noted that Kim’s clothing looks a little loose on him in recent photos, following a month-long absence from the public eye. He also appears to have gone down a few notches on his wristwatch band, analysts told Reuters. As of this article, Pyongyang has not acknowledged the weight loss.
“It is a little strange that they would show him in such ill-fitting clothes, as the optics do seem to emphasize his weight loss,” said Jenny Town, director of the Korea-focused 38 North project in the United States.
“It is a major weight loss, and his health is important to the functioning and fate of the state, which is why people are watching this closely,” Town told Reuters.
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North Korean state-controlled media added fuel to the speculation on Friday. It quoted an unidentified citizen as saying that Kim looks “emaciated,” in a rare published remark about the dictator’s health. The man in the report said he was “heartbroken” to see Kim in such a state.
“Everyone is talking about how their tears welled up immediately,” the man said.
The comment emerged amid a growing food crisis in North Korea, where COVID-19 lockdowns and international sanctions have pushed the nation into dire economic circumstances.
“The most likely reason they would mention his declining weight in this way would, in my opinion, be related to ongoing COVID-19-related border measures,” said Chad O’Carroll, CEO of the Seoul-based Korea Risk Group.
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“Regardless of the motivation for Kim’s rapid weight loss, it seems there is propaganda value in showing that even the leader of North Korea is enduring the same food shortages that are hitting the country at the current time.”
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Christopher Green, a Korea specialist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, also suggested that North Korea is using Kim’s weight as a propaganda tool to steer public opinion around his appearance.
“What matters is that the North Korean regime will have received word from its many, many, many informants that Kim’s condition was a talking point among ordinary people,” he told Reuters.
“From there it is a simple matter to respond by designing a propaganda strategy to use the existing public discussion to the regime’s advantage.”
Kim warned earlier this month that the food situation is “getting tense,” before announcing that North Korea would extend its lockdown due to the pandemic. Kim has also claimed that North Korea has not had a single case of COVID-19 — a claim that experts say is likely bogus.
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Kim’s health has been a tightly guarded secret for years, and he has disappeared from public view for reported medical reasons on multiple occasions in the past.
Kim took over from his father, Kim Jong Il, as dictator of North Korea in 2011. He packed on 90 pounds over the first five years of his rule, bringing his weight up to 286 pounds, the AFP reports. He reportedly tipped the scales at about 309 pounds last year, but appears to have lost approximately 22-44 pounds since then, the Associated Press reports.
“No one can really know why he lost weight,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, told AFP.
“What’s clear — from the KCTV footage — is the regime wants the world to think that its people love and care for their leader, to a point where they’d cry over his thinner appearance.”
— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press
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