Colin Zwirko

The apparent weight loss comes after rumors of ill-health in recent years

Kim Jong Un looks thinner, and intelligence agencies are likely paying attention

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reappeared in state media last Saturday after not being seen in public for almost a month, and seasoned North Korea watchers were quick to point out that the DPRK leader may have lost a significant amount of weight.

Though often the subject of less serious online commentary, Kim’s weight and health are closely watched by foreign intelligence agencies, including South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS).

If Kim lost the weight intentionally to get healthier, then that “likely improves his position at home,” according to Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).Comparison of Kim Jong Un walking during appearances in state media on Apr. 30 (left) and June 5 (right) this year. | Video: KCTV, edited by NK News

Being more secure at home “in turn provides more predictability perhaps for regional actors like Japan, the ROK and the U.S. who may have greater confidence that he will be running the show,” Narang told NK News on Tuesday.

“If [the sudden weight loss] is due to a health condition though, the jockeying for his succession may already be happening behind the scenes, and that volatility could be trouble for the outside world” if he were to suddenly pass away, he added.

NK News forensic analysis of state media imagery does suggest that Kim appeared thinner last Saturday, as the luxury watch he frequently wears seemed to be fastened more tightly than before around an apparently slimmer wrist. 

Kim Jong Un has appeared to be wearing the same $12,000 Portofino Automatic watch by Swiss company IWC Schaffhausen during most appearances in the last year. In an appearance in early June after a monthlong absence, the length of the strap past the buckle and two keeper loops bunched together on this watch appeared longer than during recent appearances in Nov. 2020 and Mar. 2021, indicating a slimmer wrist. | Images: KCTV, edited by NK News

The NIS reportedly told ROK lawmakers in Nov. 2020 that they believed Kim weighed 140 kilograms (308 pounds) and had “gained an average of 6 to 7 kilograms per year,” or 50 kg total, since coming to power in late 2011.

“On the surface, noticeable weight loss may not mean much, but it can provide clues to other information that intelligence collectors look for,” Mike Brodka, an intelligence officer for U.S. Special Operations Command in South Korea, told NK News.

Describing a range of possible outcomes that analysts may consider when watching the North Korean leader’s health, Brodka said it’s “important for intelligence to look at different sources of information and indicators of linked events to try and answer” what’s going on behind Pyongyang’s carefully managed propaganda.

“It may be a simple matter of a healthy lifestyle change or a more complex issue,” Brodka added. “Right now, we do not know, but it raises enough serious questions that we must pay attention to events over the next couple of months to find out.”

Kim has taken longer and more frequent breaks from the public eye in the last few years. In 2020, he exhibited signs of possible health issues after emerging from a particularly long absence that spring.

Kim is likely to be at high risk of cardiovascular disease, as experts have assessed on NK News before. He also has a history of heart issues in his family — former North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il both reportedly died of heart attacks.

However, the NIS said last year that Kim Jong Un’s age — he’s believed to be in his mid-30s — likely reduces the chances of a serious issue arising from his weight. Comparison of Kim Jong Un at politburo meetings reported in state media on Dec. 30, 2020 (left) and June 5, 2021 (right). | Video: KCTV, edited by NK News

Meanwhile, North Korea has been making structural changes and altering propaganda strategies since last year to emphasize the role of the Party Central Committee, slightly minimizing the centrality of Kim Jong Un.

For instance, a group of officials under Kim called the Politburo Presidium was given a more prominent role in 2020, and party rules were amended in Jan. 2021 to officially establish a clear number-two position in the party under Kim. Slogans and symbols representing Kim were also erased from display across the country in recent months and replaced with slogans glorifying the Party Central Committee instead. 

Regardless of these changes and whatever Kim’s weight is, he appears firmly in control. He showed up on June 8 with state media reporting he guided a political meeting and provided his personal solutions to the nation’s economic troubles. He has also remained the central focus of propaganda in state print media and television recently. 

Later this week, Kim is set to appear at a party plenary meeting that could last several days.

Edited by Arius Derr

Updated at 20:45 KST on June 8: Comments by Mike Brodka were added. Leadership