SEOUL — All they had was TV footage — and a wristwatch.
When North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, reappeared in public this month after a four-week absence, outside analysts and news outlets began poring over state news media for clues to explain his latest absence.
They immediately noticed that Mr. Kim, 37, appeared to be significantly thinner than before. Analysts noticed the brown leather band of Mr. Kim’s wristwatch looked a few notches tighter after comparing his appearances on North Korean television in recent months, supporting the idea that he had lost weight.
But that was all they had to go on.
Mr. Kim’s health, like the North Korean regime itself, is shrouded in such secrecy that experts are frequently forced to make educated guesses. Did he have a medical scare? Or did the world’s most isolated country’s obese dictator finally decide to go on a diet?
These questions, as well as the obsessive focus on trivial details like Mr. Kim’s wristwatch, may appear to be idle prattle of celebrity gossip. Analysts say they must use every available piece of information to try to answer an even more serious question: What would happen to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and its people, who have been taught to worship Mr. Kim, if he became incapacitated?
North Korean state media put its own spin on Mr. Kim’s weight loss over the weekend, reporting on ordinary people’s reactions to seeing him at a nationally televised art performance.
“What made people, including myself, most heartbroken when we watched the show was how emaciated Dear Leader Kim Jong-un looked,” a middle-aged North Korean man in a straw hat told North Korea’s state-run Central Television. “Everyone says they had to fight back tears.”
Mr. Kim isn’t exactly svelte, even after losing weight. According to some analysts, he could easily weigh twice as much as many adult North Koreans. (According to one study, North Korean refugees weighed about 115 pounds when they fled their home country, which was plagued by chronic food shortages.)
It is extremely rare for the state media in the North, where all news reports are carefully censored and scripted by government propagandists, to mention Mr. Kim’s physical appearance.
“His weight loss was so obvious that there was no way North Koreans would have missed it,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at South Korea’s Sejong Institute. “In order to prevent a rumour about the leader’s health from spiralling out of control, the regime had to confirm the obvious and signal to the people that all was well with the leader.”
North Korea also took advantage of the opportunity to spread propaganda at a time when the country is facing a food shortage. According to Mr. Cheong, the regime wanted to show the people that Mr. Kim has been struggling to guide the country through sanctions, the pandemic, and natural disasters. Mr. Kim wore an ill-fitting baggy white shirt to the art performance, as if to emphasise his selfless weight loss.
According to South Korean intelligence officials, when Mr. Kim took over North Korea following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011, he weighed 198 pounds. However, they claimed that Mr. Kim, who stands about 5 feet 7 inches tall, continued to gain weight, reaching a weight of 308 pounds last year.
His boyish youth has given way to a tired and puffy appearance, raising concerns about his health and the Kim dynasty’s future. Mr. Kim has no children who are old enough to take over the reins if he dies unexpectedly. For three generations, the Kim family has ruled North Korea.
When Mr. Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and former President Donald J. Trump several times in 2018 and 2019, South Korean and American intelligence officials are believed to have gained valuable insight into Mr. Kim’s health.
According to video footage from South Korean TV reporters, Mr. Kim was breathing heavily when he accompanied Mr. Moon on a short hike to the peak of Mt. Baekdu following their meeting in Pyongyang in 2018. Mr. Moon, 68, did not appear to break a sweat.
“Don’t you feel like you’re out of breath?” When they later rode a cable car together, Mr. Kim asked Mr. Moon.
Mr. Moon stated, “I am fine.”
“I’m so jealous of you!” Ri Sol-ju, Mr. Kim’s wife, who joined him on the outing, said
Ms. Ri has told South Korean visitors that she has tried to persuade her husband to give up bad habits such as chain smoking. Analysts say that no one in North Korea, except Ms. Ri, would dare to give such advice to Mr. Kim, who has executed senior officials, including his uncle, in political purges.
During the cable car ride, Mr. Moon and his wife, Kim Jung-sook, diplomatically explained the health benefits of regular exercise to Mr. Kim, who appeared uninterested and looked out the window.
Mr. Kim’s father and grandfather both died of heart disease. That family history has fueled speculation about Mr. Kim’s health whenever he disappears from public view for weeks at a time.
One such absence in 2014 sparked speculation that Mr. Kim was unable to travel due to a severe hangover, gout, or even a coup. When Mr. Kim reappeared in news media photographs, South Korean reporters and analysts noticed a small, golf-cart-like vehicle in the corner of one image and speculated that Mr. Kim was having difficulty walking unaided. Later, North Korean state television showed him walking with a limp and a cane, saying he was “not feeling well.”
Another disappearance from public view last year sparked wild speculation from outside observers that Mr. Kim was “in grave danger” and might have had heart surgery or was “brain-dead.” Mr. Kim soon reappeared, looking exactly like himself, but South Korean reporters couldn’t help but notice a dark spot near his wrist. Could it be where the doctors inserted a tube to perform a bypass surgery?
Mr. Kim’s health is still a ticking time bomb, according to Lee Byong-chul, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies.
“You don’t need an expert to tell you that Kim Jong-un is sick: just look at his weight, complexion, gait, breathing, and chain smoking,” Mr. Lee said. “And we have no idea who will command and control North Korea’s nuclear arsenal after he is gone.”