Socialist Realism Mosaic in North Korea

When a Dictator Loses Weight

Kim Jong Un Emaciated TweetThere’s a familiar thread in news media about public figures losing weight. Rebel Wilson and other celebrities are eager to tell the world about their hard work to lose weight and gain health. But the PR is different when a dictator loses weight.

The case in point comes from North Korea. Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un is looking a little thinner. Though the official state media is usually very quiet about the leader’s health in North Korea, this time is different. State television ran a segment with a citizen saying:

“What made people, including myself, most heartbroken when we watched the show was how emaciated Dear Leader Kim Jong-un has looked. Everybody says they could hardly fight back tears.”

The Food Shortage and the Pandemic

When a dictator loses weight, context really matters. In this case, two stories are in play. First is the issue of chronic food shortages that are becoming worse. In the mid-1990s, the country faced a famine that killed a large portion of the population. Some estimates put the deaths as high as 15 percent of the country’s 22 million people.

So when Kim took power in 2011, his robust weight could be a symbol of wealth and power. At the time, intelligence analysts estimated that he weighed 198 pounds. Last year, they estimated his weight to be as high as 308 pounds.

Now, the narrative in state media about weight loss seems to be playing on sympathy for the leader. Perhaps the strategy is to signal that he understands the “tense food situation” facing the North Korean people. That situation is getting worse because of the second story in play – the pandemic.

The reason food shortages have grown acute is extreme measures the country took to keep COVID-19 from sweeping through the population. The government has claimed that they have had no cases until recently. But this week, Kim warned of a great crisis because some officials had failed in their duties for keeping the pandemic out.

A Sketchy Story

All of this adds up to a very sketchy story about a dictator’s weight loss. Maybe it’s about his health or maybe it’s all about propaganda. But in such a visible public figure, it’s hard to ignore.

Click here and here for more on Kim’s weight loss. For more on the evolving crises in North Korea, click here.

Socialist Realism Mosaic in North Korea, photograph by Mark Fahey / flickr

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July 1, 2021