In a bid to garner domestic support, state media drew attention to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s “emaciated looks.” There have been growing concerns about Kim’s weight loss in the past couple of weeks. North Korean state media reported about how ordinary citizens felt when they saw him at an art performance, which was nationally televised.
According to a New York Times article, state-run Central television caught the reaction of a middle-aged North Korean, who said, “What made people, including myself, most heartbroken when we watched the show was how emaciated Dear Leader Kim Jong-un has looked. Everybody says they could hardly fight back tears.”
In a country where all news reports are conceptualized and scripted by government propagandists and passed through layers of careful censorship, the fact that Kim’s physical appearance is being mentioned is highly unusual.
Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, reportedly said, “His weight loss was so visible that there was no way North Korean people would not have noticed it. The regime had to confirm the obvious and signal to the people that all was well with the leader in order to prevent a rumor about his health running out of control.”
Kim’s health has been a talking point for the international community recently owing to the fact that he has not publicly announced his successor. Whoever is next in line holds the daunting task of developing North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, which may be targeted at the U.S. and its allies.
There is speculation among analysts in North Korea that Kim is dieting to reign in his health given his family history of cardiac issues. His father and grandfather both died of heart-related problems. The New York Times reported that regardless of how much weight he has lost, he still weighs roughly twice as much as the average North Korean adult.
WFUV.org reported the state media’s reporting of Kim’s weight loss and health concerns as propaganda to garner domestic support for Kim. Experts criticized him for struggling to deal with the economic hardships related to the pandemic, mismanagement, U.N. economic sanctions, and natural disasters.
Earlier, BBC had reported about Kim Jong-un formally acknowledging the food shortage faced by his country. Kim addressed the issue with his senior leaders, stating, “The people’s food situation is now getting tense.”
Kim remarked that the agricultural sector was not meeting stipulated grain targets as a result of typhoons and associated flooding last year. As a consequence of North Korea closing its borders in response to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), trade plummeted and North Korea was forced to rely on China for basic needs such as food, fuel, and fertilizer.
Border closures have also severely affected North Korean defectors. In the first half of this year, only 57 North Koreans entered South Korea’s defector settlement facility, which is an 85 percent decrease from the 380 defectors during the same period last year. In total, 437 North Koreans came to the facility in 2020, a 63 percent drop from 2019.
Malnourishment is another serious problem in North Korea. In a press briefing last year, Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN World Food Program (WFP), revealed that around 10 million North Koreans, accounting for roughly 40 percent of the country’s population, suffer from malnutrition. “Long-term damage to the health and development of children as well as pregnant and nursing mothers was evident,” Byrs said.
North Korea is under the dictatorship of the Kim dynasty, which is also referred to as the Mount Paektu or Baekdu bloodline. The country came under the rule of Kim Il-sung in 1948 after Japanese rule ended in the region. He was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-il, and his grandson, Kim Jong-un, who is the current Supreme Leader of North Korea.