If Kim Jong Un lost any weight during his nearly three-week absence from public view you wouldn’t be able to tell it by looking at photos his regime said showed him at a ribbon-cutting event Friday.
The five-foot-seven-inch Kim was estimated to weigh around 300 pounds at the time of his mysterious disappearance. In the pictures distributed by the official Korean Central News Agency he doesn’t look an ounce lighter. His complexion is good and he manages, seemingly effortlessly, a big, beaming grin.
So assuming the photos are indeed new, which seems likely, we can pretty much rule out the reports that had said he was in grave condition, vegetative or clinically dead. Even the biblical Lazarus would have suffered some weight loss and general debilitation before miraculously taking up his bed and walking.
However, we don’t know enough to dismiss other health-related theories of what the 36-year-old Kim was up to all that time – notably, (A), that he was isolating himself to avoid exposure to the coronavirus and, (B), that he underwent a relatively minor cardiovascular procedure on April 12 and recuperated in one of his villas, as Seoul news organization Daily NK reported.
(It remains to be seen how all this squares with the same news organization’s report that Kim’s signed instructions to subordinates this week were so different in style from the usual as to make them think someone else was acting on his behalf.)
Among five possibilities initially put forward by Asia Times, theory #2, a coup d’etat, fails to fit with the news of his reappearance.
Was Kim’s disappearance meant as a test, as our theory # 1.5 later suggested, to see how the United States and South Korea would react if he appeared to be dead or dying? Whether it was so intended or not, the results are in: Neither took advantage of the situation to attack North Korea.
The disappearance episode, whether it was useful to the North Korean regime or not, certainly inspired Pyongyang watchers to put on our thinking caps and address important but normally seldom addressed questions such as which male relative or female relative might take over if Kim should die and how the country’s old enemies should react.
And it’s a timely reminder that we are reduced to tealeaf reading because we know close to zip about what’s really going on in Pyongyang. For example, suppose we confirm that the photos just released by KCNA are new ones taken Friday, not older pix pulled from the files and presented as new? Will that settle the question of whether Kim Jong Un is alive or dead?
Not quite. For decades Pyongyang watchers have believed that the ruling Kims employed doubles to stand in for them in tedious or awkward or dangerous situations. (Hat tip to fellow watcher Michael Breen for reminding me.) What if Kim Jong Un’s double is pictured in the shots just released?
Heh heh. Just stirring the pot.
Bradley K. Martin, an Asia correspondent and North Korea watcher for more than four decades, is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.