North Koreans broke down in tears over seeing a dramatically thinner Kim Jong-un, state TV cited a citizen as saying, allowing rare comments on the leader’s health that could also help build support as he seeks to revive a sickly economy.
People “were most heartbroken when they saw the emaciated figure of the respected comrade general,” a Pyongyang citizen told Korean Central Television in comments broadcast on Friday.
“Everyone says that tears came out naturally,” said the man, whose name was not given.
Kim, 37, returned to the public eye this month, cutting a much thinner figure after being absent for most of last month. During one appearance this month, he issued a rare warning that the “food situation is now getting tense.”
The warning comes at a time of the year when food stocks typically run low and the bulk of this year’s harvest has not yet been brought in.
By allowing comment on Kim’s weight, North Korea’s propaganda apparatus addressed a subject obvious to anyone watching the leader. It also supported a familiar theme in the myth-making of regime leaders, who are often portrayed as being so people-focused that they risk their own well-being.
In recent state media photos, Kim has appeared to have lost a considerable amount of weight. Some North Korea watchers said Kim, who is about 170cm tall and has previously weighed 140kg, might have lost 10kg to 20kg.
“It is hard to say what caused Kim’s weight loss, or what his health conditions are, but right now they are using it for propaganda purposes, specifically to highlight his hard work and sacrifice to improve the people’s living standards,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a nonresident fellow with the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center.
The propaganda line has endured, despite the ruling Kim family acquiring a massive fortune, palatial residences, a world-leading cognac collection and a luxury armored train used for rare trips abroad.
One of the clues that Kim lost weight came from his June 4 appearance where his US$12,000 Swiss timepiece appeared to have been fastened tighter around his wrist, an analysis by NK News said.
Kim might need the political help. North Korea’s economy is on track to barely grow this year — after its worst contraction in decades last year — as the country struggles with the pandemic, border restrictions with China and international sanctions to punish it for its nuclear-weapons testing, Fitch Solutions said in April.
One of the major messages Kim delivered at ruling party meetings this month was the need to improve the economy.
North Korea’s perennial food shortages were made worse by typhoons last year that wiped out crops and Kim’s decision to shut borders due to COVID-19, slamming the brakes on what little legal trade it has.
North Korea’s biggest newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, tried to rally members and citizens around Kim.
In an editorial yesterday, it called on members to embody Kim’s “people-first politics,” so they can “bring about a continuous upsurge in socialist construction.”
In a separate article, it called on farmers to fulfill their patriotic duties to the party by increasing production.
The interview in which the health concern was mentioned was part of an eight-minute segment on state TV that included interviews with about 20 locals on how they felt about a musical concert featuring new propaganda songs praising Kim and the ruling party.
Additional reporting by AP
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