'Difficult to do': New photos of Kim Jong-un spark 'a lot of speculation'

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has made another rare appearance prompting more speculation about his health.

Looking markedly slimmer than he had appeared in recent years, Mr Kim met with young people who had "volunteered" to work in "difficult and challenging" sectors and praised them, the country's state media reported on Tuesday (local time).

Calling them admirable heroes, Mr Kim lauded the young people for volunteering to work at the most difficult and challenging posts and said he fully supports them, Korean Central News Agency said. The report did not further elaborate on their roles.

"It is the best pride, asset and motive power for the development for a Party making revolution to have its reliable successors, reserves and promising main force," Mr Kim said according to the KCNA, referring to the ruling Workers' Party.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un waves as he attends a photo session with participants during Youth Day celebrations, in Pyongyang, North Korea.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at Youth Day celebrations, in Pyongyang on Tuesday. Source: Reuters

It was another rare appearance for the North Korean leader in the highly secretive nation.

There has been ongoing speculation Mr Kim has been unwell and photos which surfaced last month of a meeting he had on July 24-27 showed him sporting a bandage on the back of his head. It was not clear why though.

Deakin University counter-terrorism expert Greg Barton told Yahoo News Australia there is “a lot of speculation” about the leader’s weight loss.

“His appearance with bandages on the back of his head last month have further fuelled this,” Professor Barton said.

“It certainly seems very likely that he is ill. But it is also possible that he has had bariatric surgery in a deliberate effort to drop weight and head off health issues related to obesity.”

In June, reports provided by KCNA quoted some North Koreans as being heartbroken over the leader’s “emaciated looks”. It is not clear why he has lost weight. He is known for smoking and drinking alcohol.

University of Sydney’s Professor Justin Hastings said it is possible Mr Kim has lost weight for a completely different reason: “to portray himself in North Korea is one of youthful vigour (such as riding triumphantly on a horse)”.

“This is difficult to do when he is so overweight, he clearly had trouble walking for any amount of distance in unedited video,” Professor Hastings told Yahoo News Australia.

Kim Jong-Un, North Korea's leader, prepares for his departure to North Korea at the railway station in Vladivostok, Russia in April, 2019.
Mr Kim during a visit to Vladivostok, Russia in April, 2019. Source: Getty Images

Professor Hastings referred to the meeting Mr Kim had with Republic of Korea counterpart president Moon Jae-in during 2018 where Mr Kim appeared to have difficulty walking.

“It could be as simple as him wanting to, or needing to, lose and keep off weight for his own health, and to maintain a sustainable public image,” he said.

“I would also imagine that being morbidly obese does not play well when Kim Jong-un has proclaimed recently that North Korea is going through a second Arduous March (a period of famine) brought on by the border closures due to Covid.”

Mr Kim in April said North Korea was facing its “worst-ever situation, fuelled by the Covid pandemic, border closures, decades of mismanagement and US sanctions over its military program. It is possible stress could have led to weight loss.

Professor Hastings added even in the current photos Mr Kim “is still substantially heavier than others”.

Mr Kim’s weight loss will continue to garner attention and speculation as an indication of not only his health but his ability to lead the hermit nation.

He was first seen slimmed down at a meeting with senior party officials in Pyongyang in June.

Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Seoul-based NK News at the time that if Mr Kim did intentionally lose weight it gives Japan and South Korea confidence “he will be running the show”.

In April last year there was speculation Mr Kim was either in a coma or dead.

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