US and South Korean intelligence teams are reportedly keeping close tabs on the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un amid Pyongyang’s recent willingness to discuss its nuclear-weapons program with Washington.
Fox News noted long-standing speculation on Thursday that Kim is suffering from “a range of conditions including gout, diabetes, high blood pressure, a sexually transmitted disease and psychological issues.” The intelligence communities in Washington and Seoul are said to be aware of such information and are checking its accuracy and weighing how Kim’s health could impact talks with the North.
“Kim’s health is something our own intel community is trying to gain every possible insight on,” Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, told Fox. “There are rumors that Kim might have had plastic surgery and purposely gained weight to look more like his grandfather, the founding ruler of North Korea, and channel some his popularity.”
US intelligence sources have told Fox that piecing together an accurate “health profile” of Kim, who is around 35 years old, was not only “critical intelligence,” but also the “bread and butter” of scores of experts.
Major intelligence priorities surrounding Kim’s possible demise include determining who would replace the North Korean leader, if there would be a civil war and assessing the security of the regime’s nuclear sites.
An official photo of Kim released by Pyongyang in mid-February previously stirred speculation on whether the North Korean leader is ill and whether his previously reported health problems have returned.
Asia Times reported on February 15 that the photo, distributed by the North Korean government during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, showed Kim with a noticeably puffy face, with his sister, Kim Yo-jong on his left and Kim Yong-nam, the president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, on his right. Yo-jong and Yong-nam were with the North Korean delegation that attended the Games.
“Possibly they are hugging him, but it really looks like they are holding him upright to prevent him from falling over. His face also seems rather bloated. Both of these features suggest a return of the health problems that have bedeviled him since coming to power,” John Pike, a Washington, DC-based military intelligence expert, told Asia Times.
Pike says another image – a still of an official video of Kim also released in February – shows the leader giving a speech while firmly grasping the lectern with the facial expression of an unwell person.
But Fox quoted US sources in its story as acknowledging the difficulty of putting together an accurate health assessment of Kim based on information from North Korea, saying that “distinguishing fact from fiction is no easy feat.”