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SEOUL – All they had was television footage – and a watch.
When North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un reappeared from the public eye this month after a four-week hiatus, outside analysts and news outlets began investigating state news media for any clues that might explain his recent absence.
Right off the bat, they noticed that Mr. Kim, 37, looked significantly thinner than before. After comparing Mr. Kim’s appearances on North Korean television over the past few months, analysts found that the brown leather strap on his watch looked a few notches tighter, suggesting that he had lost weight.
But that was as much as they needed to go on.
Mr. Kim’s health, like the North Korean regime itself, is so secret that experts are often forced to guess clues using sheer guesswork. Was he afraid of his health? Or has the obese dictator of the world’s most remote country finally decided to go on a diet?
These questions – and the obsessive attention to mundane details like Mr Kim’s wristwatch – may seem like the idle chatter of celebrity gossip. However, analysts say they need to use whatever information they can to answer an even more serious question: what would happen to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and its people, who were taught to worship Mr. Kim, if he were suddenly incapacitated?
Over the weekend, North Korean state media offered their own opinion on Mr. Kim’s weight loss when they reported the reaction of common people to see him at a nationally televised art performance.
“What broke people, including me, the most when we saw the show was how emaciated Leader Kim Jong-un looked,” a middle-aged North Korean in a straw hat told North State Central Television. “Everyone says they can hardly hold back the tears.”
Mr. Kim is not exactly slim even after losing weight. According to some analysts, he could easily weigh twice as much as many North Korean adults. (One study estimated that North Korean refugees weighed around 115 pounds when they fled their homeland, which was chronically affected by food shortages.)
In the north, where all news reports are carefully censored and written by government propagandists, it is highly unusual for the state media to mention the appearance of Mr. Kim.
“His weight loss was so visible that the North Koreans would never have noticed,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. “The regime had to confirm the obvious and signal to the people that everything was all right with the Führer in order to prevent a rumor about his health from getting out of hand.”
North Korea also took the opportunity to spread propaganda at a time when the country is faced with an impending food shortage. The regime wanted to show people that Mr. Kim is struggling to run the country through sanctions, the pandemic and natural disasters, Mr. Cheong said. When Mr. Kim attended the art demonstration, he wore an ill-fitting, baggy white shirt as if to highlight his selfless weight loss.
When Mr. Kim took over North Korea after the death of his father Kim Jong-il in 2011, he weighed 198 pounds, according to South Korean intelligence officials. But they said that Mr. Kim, about five feet tall, had gained more and more and weighed up to 308 pounds last year.
His boyish youthfulness has been replaced by an often tired and puffy look that raises questions about his health and the future of the Kim dynasty. Mr. Kim does not have a child old enough to inherit the reins should he suddenly die. North Korea has been ruled by the Kim family for three generations.
South Korean and American intelligence officials are believed to have gained valuable insight into Mr. Kim’s health when he met several times with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and former President Donald J. Trump in 2018 and 2019.
When Mr. Kim took Mr. Moon on a short hike to the top of Mt.Baekdu after meeting in Pyongyang in 2018, he was breathing heavily, according to video footage from South Korean television reporters. Mr. Moon, 68, hardly seemed to break a sweat.
“Didn’t you run out of air?” Mr. Kim asked Mr. Moon when they later rode a cable car together.
“I’m fine,” said Mr. Moon.
“I am so jealous of you!” said Mr. Kim’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, who was on the excursion.
Ms. Ri has complained to South Korean visitors about trying to convince her husband to give up his bad habits like chain smoking. In North Korea, no one but Ms. Ri can dare give such advice to Mr. Kim, who has executed high-ranking officials, including his uncle, in political cleansing, analysts say.
During the cable car ride, Mr. Moon and his wife Kim Jung-sook diplomatically explained the health benefits of regular exercise, while Mr. Kim appeared disinterested in looking out the window.
Both Mr. Kim’s father and grandfather died of heart problems. This family history has helped fuel speculation about Mr. Kim’s health as he bids farewell to the public for weeks.
Such an absence in 2014 sparked rumors that Mr Kim may have been grounded by a severe hangover, gout, or even a coup. When Mr. Kim reappeared in news media photos, South Korean reporters and analysts noticed a small, golf cart-like vehicle in the corner of a picture and speculated that Mr. Kim was having difficulty walking unaided. North Korean state television later showed him walking with a limp and a cane and said he was “not feeling well.”
Last year, another disappearance sparked rampant speculation from outside observers that Mr. Kim was “in great danger” and may have had heart surgery or was “brain dead”. Mr. Kim soon reappeared looking like himself, but that didn’t stop South Korean reporters from noticing a dark spot near his wrist. Could the doctors put a tube in to do a bypass surgery?
Mr. Kim’s health remains a time bomb, said Lee Byong-chul, a North Korea expert at the Far East Studies Institute at Kyungnam University in Seoul.
“You don’t need an expert to tell you that Kim Jong-un has a health problem: just think about his weight, skin color, gait, breathing and chain smoking,” said Lee. “And we have no idea who will command and control North Korea’s nuclear weapons when he’s gone.”