Kim Jong Un’s weight loss puzzled North Korean observers

The ultimate challenge for spies and analysts studying North Korea is to accurately assess the health of the 37-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

After a long absence, King appeared on national television in recent weeks and looked visibly thinner. This sparked wild speculation by North Korean observers from Seoul to Washington. If the country’s leader suddenly falls ill, it may trigger a power struggle for control of nuclear and chemical weapons arsenals.

This episode exposes the consequences of the Pyongyang leadership contest and the deterioration of intelligence agencies’ understanding of North Korea. Coronavirus pandemic, Which adds to the secrets that loom over the country.

Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst who introduced North Korea to former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said that Kim’s health is the “biggest uncertainty in assessing North Korea’s stability. Factor”, is now a senior researcher at the Think Tank Strategy and International Research Center. “And since he doesn’t have any succession plans, this is a very influential scenario… the interest is very high.”

Kim succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, as the leader in 2011. It is well known that he has a penchant for alcohol and cigarettes. The Kim family also has a history of diabetes and heart disease, and foreign governments have been looking for any clues about their health for a long time. Terry said that no one knows whether Kim’s thin appearance indicates a healthy or ominous change.

The recent uncertainty marked a huge change from 2018 and 2019, when Kim Jong Un began a series of overseas summits, meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and then President Donald T. Rumpu.This Diplomatic turmoil The spy was given an unprecedented opportunity to meet him.

At that time, Kim, who was 1.75m tall, was estimated to weigh about 136kg. The biography of the North Korean leader Anna Fifield is a former Financial Times reporter. He is classified as severely obese.

Kim Jong Un (right) and then President Donald Trump in the demilitarized zone of Panmunjom, South Korea in 2019 © REUTERS

However, even during these trips, the ability of spies to collect more data is limited. Fifield pointed out that the leader’s health is so closely guarded that when he travels abroad, he will use a special toilet so that foreign agents cannot collect samples.

The pandemic has exacerbated the challenge of determining Kim Jong Un’s health and raised more questions.North Korea Restrict travel and trade In January 2020, dozens of foreign diplomats and aid workers in Pyongyang left the country.

According to data from NK Pro, an information service agency that focuses on North Korea, the number of international exchanges with North Korea dropped from 398 in 2018 (including more than 200 diplomatic exchanges) to only two last year, and none in 2021.

“We are back in a state where we don’t know. It’s actually worse… No one gets in or out. It’s now more closed than usual,” Terry said.

Border controls and the crackdown on domestic travel have Hit the economy And lead to food security issues. King this week warned of “serious incidents” related to the pandemic and ordered the reorganization of senior officials.

RAND think tank analyst and former CIA analyst Soo Kim said: “Kim may be worried that his opponents may seek to use these opportunities to weaken his power, or worse, prepare for regime change.” Worrying about any adverse changes in his health may signal weakness to the outside world.

Analysts are also trying to determine what the domestic treatment of Jin’s physical changes means.

According to official media reports, North Koreans are said to be worried that his weight loss is a sign of the leaders’ suffering.

Former US government analyst and Pyongyang propaganda expert Rachel Lee said that after North Koreans began to talk about the emergence of leaders, the authorities “decided to indirectly recognize and use it to highlight Kim Jong Il’s sacrifice and hard work for the people”.

Li added that this reflects the changes in King’s leadership style, economic management and publicity, with a significant increase in transparency and public participation. She pointed out that state television has repeatedly shown Kim Jong-un limping or walking on crutches, and he has publicly admitted that he has made policy mistakes.

“In the past, North Korea was unwilling to publicly acknowledge or resolve problems, but under Kim Jong Un’s leadership, it tends to publicly acknowledge and resolve these issues head-on,” she said.

Some analysts cautioned against misreading North Korea. “It can… send false alarms to decision makers, which may lead to irreversible decisions or harm our interests,” said Soo Kim of Rand.

A photo released by state media this week further obscured Kim Jong-un’s health. The photo showed a pack of cigarettes and an ashtray on the leader’s desk. Fifield said that this photo would also be a blow to Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, who complained to the South Korean envoy in 2018 that “she can’t let him quit smoking.”

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