This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korea has warned citizens to refrain from talking about national leader Kim Jong Un’s health after he recently lost weight, calling such gossip as a “reactionary act,” sources in the country say.
Government authorities have been pushing the narrative that Kim, referred to as the “Highest Dignity,” is healthy, and that his recent weight loss shows him suffering alongside his people, who are struggling with chronic food insecurity made worse by the effects of a prolonged coronavirus pandemic.
Kim was noticeably thinner when he appeared in state media in June following a prolonged absence, and speculation among the public began.
RFA reported that at the time that authorities considered the spreading of rumors about the Kim’s health to be treason and launched investigations to find out where such talk began.
Their attempts to stop people from discussing Kim’s health have seemingly failed, however, sources told RFA.
“As stories of health problems related to the Highest Dignity’s weight loss spread among the residents, many of the neighborhood watch units here in Chongjin made official statements to the people at their weekly meeting, saying that it is a ‘reactionary act’ to talk about the leader’s health,” a resident of the northeastern port city said on Aug. 15.
“The neighborhood watch units also said the sudden weight loss is not due to a health problem, but rather that he is suffering in solitude for the sake of the country and people in crisis,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
Some attendees at the meeting said they were heartbroken that their leader was suffering alone as the country faces its greatest crisis, but the attendees were only saying what the meeting leaders wanted to hear, the source said.
“This is the first time that authorities have felt the need to officially explain through neighborhood watch units in every region that the Highest Dignity has no health problems,” the source said.
“But on the other hand, some of the residents agreed, saying that Kim’s weight loss would not be a bad thing, as the way he appeared before he lost weight seemed to be more dangerous to his health,” said the source.
A resident of the city of Sariwon in North Hwanghae province, south of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA that neighborhood watch units there have also warned people not to gossip about Kim’s health.
“Although Sariwon did not convene an emergency meeting of residents to reassure them that the Highest Dignity is healthy, it did caution people in neighborhood watch meetings not to mention his health,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
“They emphasized that it is prohibited to share any stories about the health of the leader, who they said had become emaciated due to the piling up of national affairs. But public suspicion that he has health problems has not subsided,” the second source said.
In one neighborhood watch unit meeting in June, the unit’s leader spoke for about 20 minutes how healthy Kim was, the source said.
“The atmosphere got all serious in that meeting for a moment, but as soon as it was over the residents started saying that things are better now, because before [Kim] had gained so much weight it had become difficult for him to walk,” said the second source.
According to the second source, it was unfathomable that people would so openly discuss their leader’s health during the rule of Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung (1948-1994) or that of his father Kim Jong Il (1994-2011).
“In some cases back then, the person who talked about the leader’s health problems was taken away along with his family to a political prison. But these days, everyone is aware of the Highest Dignity’s weight loss, so authorities are doing their best to keep people’s mouths shut,” he said.
“But there will be limits to completely blocking public opinion,” he added.
Whenever Kim Jong Un is absent from public view for an extended period, rumors of his ill health or plans for what may happen after his death circulate both inside and outside North Korea.
RFA reported in April 2020 during one such absence that people living near the Chinese border were spreading rumors that Kim was on his deathbed. At the same time, North Korea watchers in the West were speculating that Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, would be next in line to rule.
The rumors were quashed when a seemingly healthy Kim made a public appearance on May 1, 2020 and Kim Yo Jong was demoted in the next year, fueling further outside speculation over her level of importance within her brother’s inner circle.