Throughout the whole year of 2020, North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has been making headlines for a handful of conjectures. First off, we thought he was dead. Then, people thought he was in a coma. The answer to why Kim’s health became the subject of global intrigue lies in the fact that the leader—read dictator—went absent for 20 days last year, when he missed birthday celebrations for his late grandfather and state founder Kim Il Sung.
The Seoul-based news site Daily NK reported that Kim had undergone a “cardiovascular surgical procedure,” and, when he finally emerged, the publication cited a mark on his wrist as possible evidence to support this theory. Even back in 2014, he dropped out of sight for nearly six weeks before reappearing with a walking stick.
The North Korean leader’s weight has long been tracked by spy agencies for clues about the stability of his autocratic and secretive regime, especially since his family is known to have a history of heart disease. South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers in November that Kim weighed an estimated 140 kilograms (309 pounds) and had gained about 50 kilograms since coming to power in 2011.
Kim hadn’t been featured in North Korean state media for about a month before it was reported that on Saturday 5 June he had attended a ruling party meeting on economic issues—the country’s economy has shown little sign of growth this year, after its worst contraction in decades, as it continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, US sanctions and a lack of trade with China. Oh, but North Korea continues to insist that it has not found a single case of the virus after sealing its borders with China and Russia, and halting air travel. This is almost as believable as Kim Jong-un’s “legendary miracle year of 2019.”
Following this appearance, people not only noticed Kim’s significant weight loss but also how he had tightened the strap on his favourite watch, the IWC Schaffhausen Portofino, reportedly worth $12,000. Seoul-based NK News published and compared enlarged images of the leader’s left wrist, which showed it to be considerably thinner than in similar images taken in November 2020, and March 2021.
Whether the North Korean leader is simply preparing for his hot dictator summer or trying to improve his standing at home—the country is also battling food shortages on top of everything else—remains unprovable.
The real question (and worry) that remains is whether Kim is healthy enough to remain the leader for the foreseeable future? And if not, how will this impact the security of such a nuke-riddled corner of the Earth?