North Korean state television has acknowledged Kim Jong Un’s apparent weight loss, even admitting that the leader’s health is a subject of concern in Pyongyang.
The admission was broadcast during an interview with a North Korea resident on state-run Korean Central Television, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
"The people were most heartbroken to see the respected general secretary looking thinner," the resident said in the interview broadcast Friday. "Everyone is saying that they are moved to tears.”
The comments were included in an unrelated KCTV report featuring street interviews with residents expressing opinions on a variety of topics, including a recent cultural performance.
The report did not mention what, if any, health issues Kim was experiencing. Analysts said, though, that it still appears important that Pyongyang is acknowledging his changed appearance.
“Minimally, someone decided that Kim’s visible weight loss would be the elephant in the room — the now palpably much slimmer elephant in the room — if they DIDN'T mention it, as everyone is talking about it. You can't not notice it,” Aidan Foster-Carter, a veteran, Britain-based Korea specialist, told VOA in an online message.
The 37-year-old’s health has often been the subject of intense speculation, most recently after he appeared on state TV looking much trimmer than he had several weeks before.
Though Kim’s new physique was apparent in his thinner face and baggier clothes, one news outlet found a way to possibly confirm the weight loss by comparing state media images of the leader's $12,000 IWC Portofino Automatic watch.
NK News, a Seoul-based news outlet, concluded that the length of the watch's strap past the buckle was longer in recent state media images than those published in November.
Rumors about Kim’s health intensified last year after he skipped a major public birthday celebration for his late grandfather, North Korea’s founding leader.
Since then, Kim has been absent from state media for several extended periods of time without explanation.
Kim, a frequent cigarette smoker, appears much heavier than when he took power in 2011. Last year, South Korea’s spy agency reported Kim weighed over 136 kilograms.
Rumors about Kim’s health also circulated in 2014, when he was absent from public view for several weeks. He eventually resurfaced using a cane; state media cryptically said he had experienced “discomfort,” but did not elaborate.
Kim is the third generation of his family to rule North Korea. His father, Kim Jong Il, died of a heart attack in 2011 at the age of 69. Although his death was unexpected, he had appeared sickly at the end of his life.
“There is a big difference between how his dad looked in his final years — clearly shrunken in a not good, ill sort of way — and the new svelte Kim Jong Un. From what I've seen he looks better than before,” Foster-Carter said.
Although media discussion about Kim’s weight often takes a light-hearted or mocking tone, his health situation is important, since he exercises authoritarian rule over a nuclear-armed country that may not have a succession plan in place.
Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, appears to have gained influence in recent years, but it is not clear whether she would be a part of any succession plan.
Earlier this month, the South’s Yonhap news agency reported that the ruling North Korean Workers’ Party recently created a de facto second-in-command position. It reported that Jo Yong Won, a close aide to Kim, appears to have been elected to the position.
The developments come amid tough times in North Korea. Earlier this month, Kim acknowledged his country faces a “tense” food situation.
North Korea went into a severe coronavirus lockdown in January 2020, cutting off almost all contact with the outside world and even restraining trade with its economic lifeline, China.
The KCTV comments about Kim's health could be part of a domestic propaganda campaign designed to show that Kim is “tightening his belt” during hardship, says Peter Ward, a Seoul-based Korea specialist and PhD candidate at the University of Vienna.
“But I doubt he lost weight because of that,” Ward added.
“The fact that the media is talking about it means the authorities understand it’s a major story inside the country,” he says. “And they want the people to speak in specific ways about it. Call it the North Korean version of message discipline, if you will.”