North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is looking more svelte at a time which his closed-off nation is undergoing signifcant hardships. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

Kim Jong Un in his latest appearance was comparatively svelte; he clearly had lost considerable weight.

Might he have taken drastic action to achieve that result? A diet? Weight loss surgery?

To us, in the outside world, either course would have seemed warranted after the five-foot seven-inch Kim was estimated last year to have tipped the scales at 300 pounds. Any doctor would have said to him, “Yes! Get your weight down before you die of such obesity-related ailments as diabetes.”

But would such a smart move by Kim and his doctors or trainers be something North Korean state media would wish to highlight?

That could be complicated. Speculation has long had it that Kim Jong Un’s enormous girth is self-inflicted in an effort to brand himself as a clone of his revered grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung (d. 1994), who had permitted himself to become much heavier than ordinary North Koreans.

The message: Fat is good if you are the supreme leader.

How would the propaganda apparatus go about reversing that carefully inculcated belief?

Would there be any percentage in suddenly shifting to a narrative in which slender is good, urging people to cheer on their leader as he disciplines himself to do the needful for his health?

Perhaps not – and, in any case, that’s not what the spin doctors have done, so far. Rather, on Friday on Korean Central TV, they called attention to Kim Jong Un’s sudden weight loss in a way calculated to attract sympathy.

“The people were most heartbroken to see the respected general secretary looking thinner,” a Pyongyang resident said in an interview that was broadcast Friday on state television. “Everyone is saying that they are moved to tears.” 

This picture shows obese leader Kim Jong Un speaking on March 6, the fourth day of the First Short Course for Chief Secretaries of City and County Party Committees in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP / KCNA via KNS
Contrast the lower photo: Not exactly starving, as some of his subjects reportedly are doing, but three months after the upper photo was taken when Kim attended a consultative meeting of senior officials of the Party Central Committee and the provincial Party committees on June 4, the dictator seemed to have lost weight around his chin, chest and arms. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

Ploys to get people to sympathize with their leaders are not unusual in North Korea. Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un, was held up as a selfless exemplar who “continued on a path of endless work, only getting in short naps and eating rice balls – and, in the end, passing away on a running train.”

You can have a strong leader who instills confidence even if the authorities point out (boast) that he’s overworked, or if they (falsely) allege that he eats no better than a poor peasant.

The latter claim might be particularly appealing during a time of widespread food shortages such as the present.

“Security at military armories, security facilities and idols [statues] of the Kim Jong Un family has recently been greatly strengthened,” reports Osaka-based AsiaPress, which gets news from undercover reporters inside the country who use smuggled Chinese cellphones.

The increased security is said to have been undertaken “due to the increasing discontent caused by the worsening of people’s lives due to the economic turmoil.” The same publication has reported on actual starvation in parts of the country recently.

The emphasis in the current case on Kim Jong Un’s health may be significant. If authorities persist in calling attention to the issue, what shall we assume? In what circumstances would that be something the propagandists would see an advantage in talking about?

One fairly likely possibility, of course, is that Kim Jong Un really has been ill and the authorities feel the need to persuade people to excuse him from maintaining a full workload – or even to prepare the population for his death. Party regulations have in fact been changed recently to permit naming someone else as number two.

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.