Kim Jong Un appears to have lost some weight - and that could have geopolitical consequences

MEETING: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a plenary meeting of the Workers' Party central committee in Pyongyang, North Korea in this photo supplied by North Korea's Central News Agency on Feb. 10. KCNA via Reuters

The baggy suit is hanging a bit more loosely these days.

After not being seen in public for almost a month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reappeared in state media on Saturday looking noticeably slimmer.

Analysts and foreign intelligence agencies have long pored over what little information escapes North Korea for hints of what is going on inside the Hermit Kingdom. But with the country closing its borders completely during the covid pandemic, Kim watchers have seized upon his apparently slimmer waistline as a potential sign of - something.

If Kim simply slimmed down to be healthier, then that "likely improves his position at home" and "provides more predictability perhaps for regional actors like Japan, (South Korea) and the U.S. who may have greater confidence that he will be running the show," Vipin Narang told NK News.

"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," added Narang, a political science professor at MIT.

NK News went so far as to compare enlarged images of Kim's wrist from the past seven months. In a picture from November, the leader's $12,000 IWC Portofino Automatic watch appeared to fit snugly around his wrist. But more recent photos show Kim wearing his watch with more strap to spare.

"It's ridiculous that people are turning to analyzing how loose his wristwatch might be," said Jean H. Lee, former Pyongyang bureau chief for the Associated Press and host of a new podcast on North Korea. "And yet, if you look at the side-by-side photos, it does look like he lost some weight. And there is a real reason for concern: his father and grandfather both died of heart attacks."

It's far from the first time that people have scrutinized images of Kim for signs of his health and personality in a bid to learn something about an enigmatic strongman who sits atop a nuclear arsenal.

When the dictator met South Korean President Moon Jae-in in 2018, one South Korean newspaper asked seven experts to spend hours reviewing footage for clues about the North Korean leader. The investigation suggested Kim was wearing insoles to inflate his height.

When Kim's appearance on a golf cart ride last year ended rumors he was gravely ill, some medical experts speculated that a small mark on his wrist was proof he had undergone a medical procedure.

Even his ascension in 2011 was shrouded in mystery, as U.S. officials did not know of his father's death for two days, until the regime announced it.

When images of Kim himself aren't available, analysts and online sleuths sometimes turn to satellite imagery for signs of his planes, motorcades, trains and boats.

"In a country like North Korea, there's no noise when it comes to luxury facilities," Colin Zwirko, from the specialist news and analysis service NK Pro, told The Washington Post last year. "It's only Kim family facilities. There's no other people that could be just freely enjoying boat parties or having mansions in remote places."

Tensions remain elevated between Pyongyang and the United States: When President Biden called Kim's nuclear program a "serious threat to America's security and world security" and promised to respond through "diplomacy and stern deterrence" during his recent address to a joint session of Congress, North Korea fired back.

Biden's comments were "intolerable" and reflected the "usual story" from the United States, said Kwon Jong Gun, head of the Foreign Ministry's department of U.S. affairs.

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