The ultimate challenge for spies and analysts studying North Korea is accurately assessing the health of Kim Jong Un, the 37-year-old dictator of the secretive state.
Kim appeared on state television in recent weeks after a long absence and looked noticeably thinner. This sparked a frenzy of speculation among North Korea watchers from Seoul to Washington. If the country’s leader suddenly fell ill, it could set off a power struggle for control of an arsenal of nuclear and chemical weapons.
The episode exposed the ramifications of a leadership contest in Pyongyang and the deterioration of intelligence agencies’ understanding of North Korea during the coronavirus pandemic, which has added to the secrecy that envelopes the country.
Kim’s health is “the biggest wild card” in assessing stability in North Korea, said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst who briefed former US presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama on North Korea and is now a senior fellow at the think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And with him not having any kind of succession plan, it is a high impact scenario . . . the interest is extremely high.”
Kim succeeded his father Kim Jong Il as leader in 2011 and is known to have a penchant for alcohol and cigarettes. The Kim family also has a history of diabetes and heart disease and foreign governments have long looked for any clues to their health. No one knew whether Kim’s slimmed-down appearance indicated a healthy or ominous change, said Terry.
The recent uncertainty marks a stark change from 2018 and 2019, when Kim embarked on a series of overseas summits, meeting Chinese president Xi Jinping, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and then-president Donald Trump. The flurry of diplomacy gave spies unprecedented opportunities to see him.
At that time, the 1.75m tall Kim was assessed as weighing about 136kg, according to a biography of the North Korean leader by Anna Fifield, a former Financial Times journalist. He was classified as severely obese.
But there were limits to spies’ ability to glean more data even on those trips. The state of the leader’s health is so closely guarded that when he travels abroad, he uses a special toilet so that samples cannot be gathered by foreign agents, Fifield noted.
The pandemic has exacerbated the challenge of ascertaining the state of Kim’s health and raised more questions. North Korea clamped down on travel and trade in January 2020 and scores of foreign diplomats and aid workers based in Pyongyang have left the country.
The number of international exchanges with North Korea fell from 398 in 2018, including more than 200 diplomatic exchanges, to just two last year and none in 2021, according to NK Pro, a North Korea-focused information service.
“We’re back to not knowing. It is actually worse . . . There is nobody going in and out. It is now even more closed off than normal,” said Terry.
The border controls and a crackdown on internal travel have battered the economy and led to food security problems. Kim this week warned of a “grave incident” related to the pandemic and ordered a reshuffling of top cadres.
“Kim probably fears that his adversaries may seek to exploit these as opportunities to weaken his power or, worse, manoeuvre for regime change,” said Soo Kim, an analyst at the Rand Corporation think-tank and a former CIA analyst, adding that he might be worried that any adverse change in his health could signal weakness to the outside world.
Analysts are also attempting to establish what the domestic handling of Kim’s physical transformation signifies.
North Koreans were said to be worried that his weight loss was a sign of the leader’s suffering, according to a report in state media.
Rachel Lee, a former US government analyst and expert on Pyongyang’s propaganda, said that after North Koreans started talking about the leader’s appearance, authorities “decided to indirectly acknowledge it and use it to highlight Kim’s sacrifice and hard work for the people”.
Lee added that this reflected a change in leadership style, economic management and propaganda under Kim, with a noticeable increase in transparency and public engagement. She pointed to multiple occasions where state television had shown Kim limping or walking with a cane, and his public acknowledgment of policy failings.
“Whereas in the past, North Korea was reluctant to acknowledge or address issues publicly, under Kim Jong Un, it has tended to acknowledge and tackle them publicly, head-on,” she said.
Some analysts cautioned against misreading North Korea. “It can . . . send a false alarm to policymakers, potentially leading to decisions that are irreversible or undermine our interests,” said Rand’s Soo Kim.
Further clouding the picture of Kim’s health was a photo released by state media this week that showed a packet of cigarettes and an ashtray on the leader’s desk. The image will also have been a blow to Ri Sol Ju, Kim’s wife, who complained to South Korean envoys in 2018 that “she couldn’t get him to give up smoking”, according to Fifield.
Additional reporting by Federica Cocco in London