Kim Jong Un is thought to have lost around 40 pounds as new photo shows him looking noticeably slimmer while warning North Korea faces ‘tense’ food shortages
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has faced fresh speculation about his health as he appeared noticeably slimmer.
In recent state media images, Kim appeared to have lost a large amount of weight as his face is thinner and the strap on his fancy watch is tighter.
It comes as the leader warned of possible food stages in the country as he said the situation is ‘getting tense’.
He opened a major political conference to discuss efforts to salvage a broken economy, but called on his people to brace for extended Covid-19 restrictions.
Kim’s health matters in Seoul, Washington, Tokyo and other world capitals because he hasn’t publicly anointed a successor who would control an advancing nuclear program targeting the US and its allies if he is incapacitated.
North Korea, never open about the internal workings of its leadership, has over the last year shut itself up even tighter to protect against the coronavirus pandemic, of which they claim to have had no cases.
Some observers say Kim – who is about 5ft8in tall and has previously weighed 308 pounds may have lost between 22 and 44 pounds.
Kim’s apparent weight loss is more likely an attempt to improve his health, rather than a sign of illness, according to Hong Min, a senior analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.
The North’s economy has decayed further amid pandemic border closures, which choked off trade with China, while devastating typhoons and floods last summer decimated crops.
During the plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee that opened on Tuesday, Mr Kim urged officials to find ways to boost agricultural production, saying the country’s food situation ‘is now getting tense’.
Monitors assessing the situation in North Korea have yet to see signs of mass starvation or major instability, but some analysts say conditions could be aligning for a perfect storm that undercuts food and exchange markets and triggers public panic.
The Korea Development Institute, a South Korean government think tank, said last month the North could face food shortages of around a million tons this year.
Hong said that Kim wouldn’t have ‘come out in public to convene the plenary meeting’ if he had health problems.
Kim, known for heavy drinking and smoking, comes from a family with a history of heart problems.
His father and grandfather, who ruled North Korea before him, both died of heart issues. Experts have said his weight could increase the possibility of cardiovascular diseases.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it has no information to share about Kim’s health. His slimmer look has been the focus of keen interest in South Korea, with media outlets publishing phots of his previous and current appearances.
Seo Yu-Seok at the Seoul-based Institute of North Korean Studies said the North’s recent creation of a first secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party, the country’s No. 2 job, might have been related to Kim’s possible heal
He said Kim may have allowed the post’s establishment at the urging of top officials but still hasn’t named anyone to the job because it could loosen his grip on power.
‘If Kim faces a real health problem and is in a condition in which he can’t express his opinions, though he isn’t dead, who will make a decision to name the first secretary?’ Seo said.
When global speculation flared about Kim’s health last year after he missed the commemoration of the birthday of his late grandfather, some analysts speculated Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, was next in line to inherit her brother’s power. Others said a collective leadership was also possible.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency also said on Wednesday that Mr Kim called for discussions on how the North should deal with the ‘current international situation’, though it did not mention any specific comments from Mr Kim about the US or South Korea.
North Korea has so far ignored the allies’ calls to resume nuclear negotiations that have stalled for two years following the collapse of Mr Kim’s ambitious summitry with former President Donald Trump.
Talks derailed over disagreements in exchanging relief from crippling US-led sanctions with denuclearisation steps by the North.
KCNA said Mr Kim also ‘set forth the tasks for the state to maintain (a) perfect anti-epidemic state’ — indicating North Korea would extend its pandemic lockdown despite the stress on its economy.
Experts widely doubt North Korea’s claim it has not had a single Covid-19 case, given its poor health infrastructure and a porous border with China, its major ally and economic lifeline.
Mr Kim had called for the party meeting to review national efforts to rebuild the economy for the first half of the year.
While addressing the ‘unfavourable’ conditions and challenges on Tuesday, Mr Kim also expressed appreciation over what he described as improvements, claiming the country’s industrial output so far has increased by 25 per cent from last year, KCNA said.
North Korea held its first ruling party congress in five years in January where it laid out development plans for the next five years.
At that meeting, Mr Kim urged his people to be resilient in the struggle for economic self-reliance, called for reasserting greater state control over the economy, boosting agricultural production and prioritising the development of chemicals and metal industries.
Experts say those sectors are crucial to revitalising North Korean industrial production undercut by sanctions and halted imports of factory materials amid the pandemic.