North Korea sees ‘propaganda value’ in slimmer Kim, analysts say

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un speaks at plenary meeting of 8th central committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in this still image taken from KRT footage on June 16, 2021. KRT TV via REUTERS

A rare mention in North Korean state media of leader Kim Jong Un’s health could be intended to head off speculation and play up shared sacrifice amid food shortages, analysts said.

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 Kim looking “emaciated”.

When Kim reappeared in state media in early June after not being seen in public for almost a month, analysts noted that his watch appeared to be fastened more tightly than before around an apparently slimmer wrist, sparking speculation over the health of a leader who holds an iron grip in North Korea.

“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 is unclear whether Kim’s weight loss is due to illness, or whether he decided that it was time to get fit, and the intention behind the state media coverage is unknown, said Jenny Town, director of the U.S.-based 38 North project, which monitors North Korea.

“It is a little strange that they would show him in such ill-fitting clothes, as the optics do seem to emphasise his weight loss,” she said.

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.


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