North Korea Launches Investigation to Stop Gossip about Kim Jong Un’s Health

Government spins leader’s slimmer appearance as evidence that he suffers along with his people.
2021-06-29
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This combination of file photos provided by the North Korean government, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at Workers' Party meetings in Pyongyang, North Korea, on May 24, 2020, left, and June 15, 2021. North Korean state TV has cited an unidentified resident as saying that citizens are heartbroken because of leader Kim's “emaciated looks.” The comments are a rare acknowledgment of outside speculation that Kim has recently lost a considerable about of weight. Photos: AFP

North Korea has launched an investigation into gossip about the health of the country’s leader Kim Jong Un, after he appeared on state media looking thinner after a lengthy absence, sources in the country told RFA.

Kim resurfaced in public this month and North Korea watchers noted that he had noticeably lost weight, even analyzing photographs to see if he was using a different notch on his wristwatch band, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

Although the reasons for his apparent weight loss are unknown, state media have used it for propaganda purposes, saying that Kim is suffering alongside his people, who are struggling in a country plagued by chronic food insecurity exacerbated by the effects of the prolonged coronavirus pandemic.

Last week North Korean state TV cited an unidentified male resident as saying ordinary people were heartbroken at the sight of a leaner Kim.

“Our people’s hearts ached most when we saw (Kim’s) emaciated looks,” the man said. “Everyone says their tears are welling up in their eyes naturally.”

But discussion of the North Korean leader’s health can be considered treason, so authorities are launching investigations nationwide to stop people from spreading rumors about Kim, called the “Highest Dignity” in official communication.

“I was informed that the Ministry of State Security issued an order to each region’s State Security Department last week to secretly investigate rumors related to the health of the Highest Dignity,” a resident of the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA’s Korean Service June 27.

“I heard about it from a state security agent in Tongrim county who I am close with,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

According to the source, the investigation will occur simultaneously in all cities and counties in the province and will target government officials and residents alike.

“There is a rumor spreading around that the Highest Dignity has health problems, and the State Security Department is trying to find out the source of the rumor,” the source said.

“In fact, some residents, as well as government officials, are saying these days that the highest dignity is still young, but he will not live long due to various diseases including high blood pressure,” said the source.

According to the source, the public suspects Kim might have a health problem because when he appeared on state TV a few days ago, he was much thinner than when they last saw him in May.

“Since even mentioning the health of the highest dignity is considered treason in North Korea, the rumor has not been widely spread or publicized yet,” the source said.

“The Ministry of State Security sees the spread of even the slightest word about the health of the Highest Dignity as a case related to the stability of the regime, so not only government officials, but also the people are extremely careful about their words because they don’t want to get caught in an investigation.”

In South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, the head of a neighborhood watch unit told RFA that the State Security Department is ordering each unit to report on residents who mention even trivial matters about Kim Jong Un’s health. 

“I understand that such measures are happening nationwide under the direction of the Ministry of State Security,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

The second source said the investigation is similar to public opinion surveys launched when Kim Jong Un’s grandfather and national founder Kim Il Sung died in 1994, and when his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il suddenly collapsed from a stroke in 2008 and could not attend a ceremony for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean regime.

“The reason for this investigation is because the Highest Dignity on TV last month had a big build, but he looked unhealthy during the plenary meeting of the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] this month,” the second source said.

“Thus, there is a rumor going around that Kim Jong Un is in poor health like his father was… for now it is unknown how long this investigation will continue.”

Several analysts told RFA that even though Kim’s thinner appearance might indicate to the public that he could be ill, a slimmer build could be good for propaganda.

“I think the North Korean regime understands that, in a country where there are pockets of people starving, to have a very overweight Supreme Leader is just not a good image. And I think by showing that he's lost a little weight -- that can really kind of go along with the narrative that he's working very hard for the people and everybody's suffering including him,” Ken Gause of the Virginia-based CNA think tank told RFA.

“We haven't seen any other indications that actually he's suffering any particular ailment,” Gause said, adding that the weight loss was not dramatic.

Mark Barry, the associate editor of the International Journal on World Peace, said Kim may have lost weight for health reasons.

“Surely whatever was done to attain weight loss was for the sake of improving Kim’s health over the long-term,” Barry told RFA.

“However, it does serve a propaganda purpose to portray Kim’s weight loss as if he were suffering along with his people due to the adverse food situation this spring and summer,” he said.

Kim’s rapid weight gain since 2011, when he became ruler at only 27 years old, may have been as a means to appear “older and more in charge” so that elites who served his father would fall in line, added Barry.

U.S.-based North Korea expert Kongdan Oh told RFA that even if Kim is in poor health, the government must spin it positively, because North Korean society is so leader oriented.

“This time, the weight loss is being propagandized as, ‘he worked so hard for the people and couldn’t sleep. That’s why he has become so emaciated,’” she said.

Whenever Kim Jong Un is absent from public view for an extended period, rumors of his ill health or plans for after his death circulate both inside and outside North Korea.

RFA reported in April 2020, during one such absence, that people living near the Chinese border were spreading rumors that Kim Jong Un was on his deathbed. Meanwhile North Korea watchers in the West were speculating that Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, would be next in line to rule.

The rumors were quashed when a seemingly healthy Kim made a public appearance on May 1. Kim Yo Jong was demoted in 2021, further muddling outside speculation over her level of importance within her brother’s inner circle.

Reported by Hyemin Son and Albert Hong. Translated by Jinha Shin and Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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