Propaganda value, optics behind thinner Kim Jong Un, say analysts

Published on Jun 29, 2021 12:20 PM IST

An unidentified resident of Pyongyang was quoted on KRT that everyone in North Korea is heartbroken over Kim Jong Un's apparent weight loss.

Kim Jong Un, who is said to be 37 years old, reappeared in public after nearly a month earlier in June sparking speculation over his health. (AP Photo)
Kim Jong Un, who is said to be 37 years old, reappeared in public after nearly a month earlier in June sparking speculation over his health. (AP Photo)
By | Written by Meenakshi Ray, New Delhi

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been under the spotlight this time for his weight loss and analysts think it could be related to the "tense" food situation in the country. They say there is propaganda value in showing that Kim Jong Un has lost weight amid food shortages in North Korea, which is one of the most secretive countries in the world.

Kim Jong Un, who is said to be 37 years old, reappeared in public after nearly a month earlier in June sparking speculation over the health of the leader and the focus was on his apparently slimmer wrist. Reuters reports that analysts at NK News, a Seoul-based website that monitors North Korea, noted that his watch appeared to be fastened more tightly on his wrist.

And then came the tightly controlled state media's rare mention of the issue last week. An unidentified resident of Pyongyang was quoted on KRT that everyone in North Korea is heartbroken over Kim Jong Un's apparent weight loss. "Seeing respected general secretary (Kim Jong Un) looking emaciated breaks our people's heart so much," the man said in an interview aired by the state broadcaster on Friday.

Also read | Explained: Why Kim Jong Un’s weight issue is a talking point across the world

Jenny Town, director of the US-based 38 North project which monitors North Korea, said the reason behind Kim's weight loss is unclear--whether it is because of an illness or whether he decided that it was time to get fit-- and the intention behind the state media coverage is also unknown, according to Reuters. "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," Town was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Also read | US has 'wrong' expectation for dialogue: Kim Yo Jong

Christopher Green, a Korea specialist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, told Reuters that the emphasis was on the fact that Kim is working hard for the people at a time of widespread hardship. "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," he added.

Kim has talked about a "tense" food situation that could worsen if this year's crops fail, worsening economic problems amid strict self-imposed border and movement restrictions that have massively affected trade.

Also read | Kim Jong Un 'solemnly swears' to salvage North Korea's economy

Chad O'Carroll, CEO of the Seoul-based Korea Risk Group, said in his opinion the most likely reason they would mention his declining weight would be related to ongoing Covid-19-related border measures. "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," O'Carroll told Reuters.

This is not the first time that the North Korean state media has mentioned Kim Jong Un's health. Kim suffered from "discomfort" after a prolonged period out of the public eye, it reported in 2014. Speculation about Kim’s health spilled over after he missed the birth anniversary celebrations of state founder Kim Il Sung on April 15 last year. However, he reappeared the very next month.

(With Reuters inputs)

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