Korean Central News Agency / Korea News Service File / AP
SEOUL, South Korea – North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un’s health has long been a source of morbid fascination with rival South Korea overshadowed by Kim’s 1.2 million-strong army and growing arsenal of nuclear missiles.
Has he gained any more weight? Does he have difficulty breathing after relatively short walks? What about that stick? Why did he miss this important state anniversary?
Now the 37-year-old is again exposed to speculation about his health in the south. But this time it’s because he’s noticeably slimmer.
Kim’s health matters in Seoul, Washington, Tokyo and other world capitals because he has not publicly anointed a successor who would control an advancing nuclear program targeting the United States and its allies – if incapacitated. North Korea, which has never spoken openly about the internal workings of its leadership, closed itself down even more last year to protect itself from the coronavirus pandemic.
In recent state media images, including the one released on Wednesday, Kim appeared to have lost a lot of weight. The strap of his chic watch is tighter and his face is narrower. Some observers say Kim – who is about 170 centimeters (5 feet, 8 inches) tall and previously weighed 140 kilograms (308 pounds) – may have lost about 10 to 20 kilograms (22 to 44 pounds).
Kim’s apparent weight loss is more an attempt to improve his health than a sign of illness, according to Hong Min, a senior analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
“If he had health problems, he would not have gone public to call the plenary session of the Labor Party Central Committee,” a major political conference this week that is expected to last two to three days, Hong said.
Known for heavy drinking and smoking, Kim comes from a family with heart problems. His father and grandfather, who ruled North Korea before him, both died of heart problems. Experts say his weight could increase the possibility of cardiovascular disease.
The South Korean Unification Ministry said it had no information on Kim’s health. His slimmer appearance has generated a lot of interest in South Korea, and media posted photos of his past and current performances.
Seo Yu-Seok of the Seoul-based Institute for North Korean Studies said the recent creation by the north of the ruling Labor Party’s first secretary, the country’s No. 2 job, may be related to Kim’s potential health problems. He said Kim may have allowed the post to be set up at the insistence of senior officials, but still hasn’t appointed anyone to the job because it might loosen his power.
“If Kim has a real health problem and is in a state where he cannot speak his mind even though he is not dead, who will make the decision to appoint the first secretary?” Seo said.
When global speculation flared up over Kim’s health last year after missing the commemoration of his late grandfather’s birthday, some analysts speculated that Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, would next inherit her brother’s power. Others said collective leadership was also possible.