New images suggesting Kim Jong-un has recently lost weight have sparked fresh speculation about the health of the autocratic leader who retains an iron grip over nuclear-capable North Korea.
Kim, whose hefty physique has long prompted debate about chronic diseases that could impair his ability to lead, was a slimmer version of himself in state media footage and photos released this week after he reappeared for the first time in almost a month at a meeting of the ruling politburo.
In one video shot by KCTV, he walks along a panelled corridor towards the meeting, the black trousers of his signature dark buttoned suit visibly baggier than usual.
NK News, a Seoul-based website, reported that its own analysis of state media images revealed that Kim’s luxury watch appeared to be fastened more tightly than before “around an apparently slimmer wrist.”
It said the length of the strap past the buckle on the $12,000 watch looked longer than during recent appearances in November 2020 and March 2021.
Personal details about the reclusive leader are highly classified, and intelligence agencies keep a close watch on his weight fluctuations for any signs of illness that could bring about a sudden change in leadership or instability in a country known to be developing nuclear weapons.
Kim, reported to be a heavy smoker and drinker and fond of culinary delicacies, has piled on the pounds since rising to power.
According to one assessment by South’s National Intelligence Service, he was 90kg in 2012 but had ballooned to 140kg by 2020.
On occasion, his public absence has prompted fevered reports of his possible demise, even though he is still in his thirties.
In 2014, he disappeared for about six weeks before being seen limping and walking with the use of a cane.
Last year, the world was gripped by rumours he was seriously ill after unverified reports that Washington was "monitoring intelligence" that Mr Kim was in "grave danger" after undergoing surgery.
Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), told NK News that if he had lost weight intentionally, it “likely improves his position at home” which “in turn provides more predictability” internationally.
“If [the sudden weight loss] is due to a health condition though, the jockeying for his succession may already be happening behind the scenes, and that volatility could be trouble for the outside world” if he were to suddenly pass away, he added.