North Korea’s paunchy potentate has lost some of his bulk, and that is fueling speculation he is gravely ill. This is not the first time reports of Kim being in poor health have set the news services buzzing, wondering whether the blessed leader’s days are numbered. Liberty Nation first reported on the possibility that Kim was in declining health last year when he had not been seen in public for some time. But news dispatches portending his demise proved premature.
Dedicated Kim-watchers were prompted this time to believe something might be amiss with the young dictator’s health when reports began to surface in India Today. Republishing a Reuters dispatch, India Today claimed:
“Everyone in North Korea is heartbroken over leader Kim Jong Un’s apparent weight loss, said an unidentified resident of Pyongyang quoted in the country’s tightly controlled state media after watching recent video footage of Kim. The rare public comment on Kim’s health comes after foreign analysts noted in early June that the autocratic leader, who is believed to be 37, appeared to have lost a noticeable amount of weight.”
The side-by-side comparison of Kim, presumably now and in the past, shows he is slimmer. Still, he is by no means “emaciated,” as an unnamed North Korean man exclaimed in an undated interview aired by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The DPRK news service is the source of the comparison photos that reveal a slightly more svelte Supreme Leader and Marshal of the Republic than he appeared last February.
With a government and society highly opaque to outside inspection, why DPRK public affairs officials choose to release bits and pieces of what is going on inside the country is seldom obvious. Nonetheless, the story of Kim’s apparent weight loss comes at the same time as the announcement of organizational changes within the controlling Workers’ Party of Korea and the State Affairs Commission. Maroosha Muzaffar, writing in the U.K.’s Independent, reports that the North Korean government created a new position of “first secretary – who will be in charge after Mr. Kim.” Muzaffar explained:
“The agency reported that the position has been carved to lessen Mr. Kim’s ‘burden in managing party affairs.’ Interestingly, he held the title of first secretary from 2012 to 2016. The second-in-command will be able to preside over ‘key party meetings on behalf of the leader.’ Sources close to the party said Jo Yong-won, who is a close aide to Mr. Kim and current standing member of the politburo, has been elected to the post of the first secretary.”
A Voice of America article reported that North Korea’s leader “cemented his power” at the Workers’ Party of Korea last January, “where he was elected its general secretary, taking a title last held by his late father, Kim Jong Il.” The addition of a “second-in-command” in the North Korean leadership telegraphs anticipation of an heir apparent rather than a strengthening of leadership.
A Fox News report suggested that the weight loss may be intentional, promoting a healthier lifestyle. If so, Yaron Steinbuch, in a New York Post article published by Fox News, explained:
“‘On the surface, noticeable weight loss may not mean much, but it can provide clues to other information that intelligence collectors look for,’ Mike Brodka, an intelligence officer for US Special Operations Command in South Korea, also told NK News. ‘It may be a simple matter of a healthy lifestyle change or a more complex issue. Right now, we do not know, but it raises enough serious questions that we must pay attention to events over the next couple of months to find out.’”
On the other hand, if Kim has had a sudden loss of weight because of illness, “the jockeying for his succession may already be happening behind the scenes, and that volatility could be trouble for the outside world if he were to die suddenly,” Vipin Narang, an MIT political science professor, told the South Korea-based NK News outlet.
Regardless, the question that hangs over Kim’s health is Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, who was thought to be in the wings ready to take over. Again, the Independent offers this: “Meanwhile, it was claimed by many that Mr. Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, was serving as his ‘de facto second-in-command’ but had not been given that title.”
All the top spots in the DPRK leadership appear to be filled. So, where does that leave, little sis? As Brodka counseled, we’ll have to wait a couple of months to find out.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.