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North Korea highlights Kim’s weight loss as food shortage builds

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attending the 8th congress of the ruling Workers' Party. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

North Koreans broke down in tears over seeing a dramatically thinner Kim Jong Un, state TV cited a citizen as saying, allowing rare comments on the leader’s health that could also help build support as he seeks to revive a sickly economy.

People “were most heartbroken when they saw the emaciated figure of the respected comrade general,” a Pyongyang citizen told Korean Central Television in comments broadcast Friday. “Everyone says that tears came out naturally,” said the man, whose name wasn’t given.

Kim, 37, returned to the public eye in June cutting a much thinner figure after being absent for most of May. During one appearance this month, he issued a rare warning that the “food situation is now getting tense.” The warning comes at a time of the year when food stocks typically run low and the bulk of this year’s harvest hasn’t yet been brought in.

By allowing comment on Kim’s weight, North Korea’s propaganda apparatus addressed a subject obvious to anyone watching the leader. It also supported a familiar theme in the myth-making of regime leaders, who are often portrayed as being so people-focused that they risk their own well-being.

“It is hard to say what caused Kim’s weight loss, or what his health conditions are, but right now they are using it for propaganda purposes, specifically to highlight his hard work and sacrifice to improve the people’s living standards,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a nonresident fellow with the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center.

The propaganda line has endured despite the ruling Kim family acquiring a massive fortune, palatial residences, a world-leading cognac collection and a luxury armored train used for rare trips abroad. One of the clues that Kim lost weight came from his June 4 appearance where his $12,000 Swiss timepiece appeared to have been fastened tighter around his wrist, according to an analysis by NK News.

Kim may need the political help. North Korea’s economy is on track to barely grow this year — after its worst contraction in decades last year — as the country struggles with the pandemic, border restrictions with China and international sanctions to punish it for its nuclear-weapons testing, Fitch Solutions said in April.

One of the major messages Kim delivered at ruling party meetings this month was the need to improve the economy. North Korea’s perennial food shortages were made worse by typhoons last year that wiped out crops and Kim’s decision to shut borders due to COVID-19, slamming the brakes on what little legal trade it has.

North Korea’s biggest newspaper, the ruling party’s Rodong Sinmun, tried to rally members and citizens around Kim. In an editorial Monday it called on members to embody Kim’s “people-first politics,” so they can “bring about a continuous upsurge in socialist construction.” In a separate article, it called on farmers to fulfill their patriotic duties to the party by increasing production.

The interview in which the health concern was mentioned was part of an eight-minute segment on state TV that included interviews of around 20 locals on how they felt about a musical concert featuring new propaganda songs praising Kim and the ruling party.

Last week, state TV showed Kim wearing loose-fitting clothes as he entered a concert hall to a rapturous standing ovation from suit-clad cadres and military members in dress uniforms. They were there to hear the Band of the State Affairs Commission play songs including “Love Live the Workers’ Party of Korea.”

“North Korea had to do something to prevent the spreading of unnecessary rumors and speculation,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul who has advised the South Korean government. “If nothing has been said, North Koreans’ concern of Kim’s health may grow.”

Although Kim hasn’t appeared feeble or visibly ill in his recent appearances, his weight is tracked by overseas agencies looking for clues about his grip over the reclusive regime, especially since his family has a history of heart disease. The leader’s actual health is one of North Korea’s most closely guarded secrets, known only by members of the most powerful inner circle.

Kim — overweight and a smoker — has been the subject of health speculation for years. His longest absence from the public eye was six weeks in 2014. When he did appear, he was walking with a cane, raising speculation he could be suffering from gout.

South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers in November that Kim weighed an estimated 140 kilograms (310 pounds) and had gained some 50 kilograms since coming to power in 2011. Kim presided over a meeting of top party officials that started about 10 days ago, warning of a dire food situation in the country, and saying that he’s ready for “both dialogue and confrontation” with the U.S.

Kim is thought to have three children, the oldest about 11 years old. With no clear successor, the leader’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, is seen as a possible candidate to take over should something happen to her brother.

Last week, Kim Yo Jong offered up a warning to Washington, saying the U.S. has “wrong” views in thinking North Korea might be offering an opening to return to talks. Her comments came shortly after an envoy for President Joe Biden said the U.S. was ready for dialogue “anywhere, anytime” with Pyongyang.


© 2021 Bloomberg L.P

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