North Korean state TV has said Kim Jong Un’s ’emaciated’ condition is ‘breaking our people’s hearts’ in a highly unusual broadcast in a country where public discussion of the leader’s health and personal life has always been off-limits.
The tightly controlled state media on Friday quoted an unidentified resident of Pyongyang as saying that everyone in North Korea was heartbroken after seeing images of the noticeably slimmer Kim.
Analysts say the remarks showed authorities were seeking to use the change to Kim’s weight to reinforce loyalty to the regime in desperate times.
The impoverished, nuclear-armed country is more isolated than ever behind its self-imposed coronavirus barricade, and this month admitted it was tackling a food crisis, sounding the alarm in a nation with a moribund agricultural sector that has long struggled to feed itself.
At the same time Kim’s health has long been closely watched internationally as his sudden death would raise questions over succession and stability.
Known as a heavy smoker, the leader has long been obese, with his weight appearing to increase steadily in recent years.
But he looked noticeably less overweight in recent media images published by Pyongyang’s official KCNA news agency and on state television.
Some observers say Kim – who is about 5ft8in tall and has previously weighed 308 pounds may have lost between 22 and 44 pounds.
Kim’s personal life is normally taboo for North Korea’s state media and Pyongyang has never even confirmed how many children he has.
But KCTV last week aired a clip of an unnamed resident of the capital claiming everyone in the country was ‘heartbroken’ by his ’emaciated’ condition.
‘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.’
Analysts say Pyongyang is using Kim’s appearance as a way to glorify him by portraying him as a ‘devoted, hardworking’ leader as the country struggles to tackle its food crisis and other challenges.
‘If outside observers picked up on the change in Kim’s appearance, you can bet your bottom dollar that the North Korean people noticed it, too, and more quickly,’ said Christopher Green, a Korea specialist at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
It shut its borders in January last year to protect itself against the pandemic, and as a result trade with Beijing — its economic lifeline — has slowed to a trickle while all international aid workers have left the country.
‘The message Pyongyang is sending is that Kim is a leader who works very hard for his people even to a degree he skips meals and loses weight,’ defector-turned-researcher Ahn Chan-il told AFP.
Global speculation about Kim’s health flared last year after he missed the commemoration of the birthday of his late grandfather, and was absent from public view for about 20 days.
Kim’s father Kim Jong-Il and grandfather Kim Il-Sung were also obese and heavy smokers. Both died of heart attacks.
In 2016, South Korea’s spy agency reported Kim had bulked up to 285 pounds, having piled on around 90 pounds since taking power in 2011, ‘bingeing on food and drink’.
Last year it estimated he had put on another 20 pounds, taking him to around 305 pounds.
But Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, pointed out it was unlikely his recent weight loss was a symptom of acute ill health, as he had attended several public events this month.
‘No one can really know why he lost weight,’ he told AFP. ‘What’s clear — from the KCTV footage — is the regime wants the world to think that its people love care for their leader, to a point where they’d cry over his thinner appearance.’
Kim has acknowledged a ‘tense’ food situation that could worsen if this year’s crops fail, exacerbating economic problems amid strict self-imposed border and movement restrictions that have slowed trade to a trickle.
‘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.
‘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.’
The regime may have intended from the beginning to emphasise the fact that Kim is working hard for the people at a time of widespread hardship, or its messaging may have been an unintended consequence of Kim’s inevitable appearance, Green said.
‘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 said.
‘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.’
The ‘pseudo-voxpop’ – carefully staged by state media to look authentic – such as the one from the unnamed Pyongyang resident was a common North Korean media tactic, he added.
It is unusual, though not unheard of, for North Korean state media to mention a leader’s health. In 2014 it reported that Kim – who inherited his position from his father and grandfather before him – suffered from ‘discomfort’ after a prolonged period out of the public eye.
With succession plans unclear, a sudden decline in Kim’s health could throw nuclear-armed North Korea’s 76-year-old system of hereditary leadership into disarray.
‘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,’ said Town of 38 North. AFP