The most interesting thing to emerge from media coverage of the recent exchange of rocket fire between the two Koreas is Kim Jong-un’s dramatic weight gain since January — and the further drama it augurs for the peninsula.
The left half of this composite photo shows the N. Korean leader as he looked Tuesday when he read a statement to military commanders in far northeastern Yanggang Province pledging to retaliate against “hostile” US policies by “crushing” them. The right half shows how the young leader looked while delivering his new year address just three months earlier.
To be sure, Kim was a fatty before January. Now, however, his obesity has ballooned into morbid territory. The double chin sags much lower. Not even the shades can obscure the blossoming cheeks. Even factoring in Kim’s small stature, the change implies 20 new pounds, or about 7 pounds per month.
Medical literature suggests weight gain of that order likely comes from one of three things: a metabolic disorder, excessive bingeing or prolonged stress.
There’s little reason to suspect a metabolic disorder. Most are inherited. Dad and granmpa were both fatties but most of their weight gain came later in life, after years of ruinous despotism. The newest Kim is only 30, and his ballooning is too sudden to be ascribed to an inherited disorder. At the current rate, within a year or two he will weigh as much as both predecessors combined.
So the cause is likely to be one of the other factors, or more likely, both.
The fact that the gain comes on the heels of Kim’s mid-December execution of uncle Jang Song-thaek suggests it may be linked to that event.
For men bingeing on food and drink is likely to accompany the celebratory mood attendant to success or great good news. In a nation run like a gangster’s domain burying your main political rival would probably qualify. The execution and the ensuing purge apparently represents victory in some deep internecine struggle. So the ballooning is probably at least partially the result of hearty partying to celebrate the reclaiming of all the foreign business income Jang is said to have controlled.
Yet it’s unlikely for Kim’s celebratory mood to have extended more than a few weeks, not long enough to account for most of the new tonnage. More likely that in the weeks following the celebration of the victory over the Jang faction, Kim suffered an unusual amount of stress and anxiety. After all, Jang had been Kim’s protector and mentor as well as the boss of Pyongyang’s business dealings with China and other nations. No matter what precipitated the falling out, killing your uncle and his retinue, then trying to fill the resulting vacuum has to be intensely stressful, especially when the move was condemned by Beijing and other nations.
An indication of the sense of stress and anxiety besetting Kim is his tapping of siblings as his innermost circle. Two months ago Korean media revealed that Kim Jong-chol, the younger of his two elder brothers, acted as head of his personal security force in taking down Jang and purging his cronies. That makes Jong-chol his younger brother’s chief bodyguard.
Earlier this week Chosun Ilbo announced that Kim has appointed younger sister Kim Yeo-jeong, 25, as his chief of staff and Secretary of the ruling Workers Party. A Chosun Ilbo report that Yeo-jeong has exhibited erratic behavior included a photo of her laughing in the background during a recent otherwise solemn memorial service for their father. The unmistakeable suggestion was that she is not the most stable of young women.
That Kim Jong-un has tapped her to become his gatekeeper and closest confidant in all matters of state suggests two realities that bode ill for the durability of his regime: 1) his innermost circle is imploding; and 2) the outside world’s access to Kim — and vice versa — is now being controlled by a 25-year-old of questionable mental abilities.
As Kim himself said Tuesday in his speech to his military, “the nation’s situation is very grave.” The words had probably been intended to suggest the need for the military to stick with him in order to present a united front to the ostensibly belligerent US and S. Korea. They are probably a more apt description of N. Korea’s prospects under a young leader who appears unable to fill the power vacuum left by his father. That suggests Kim’s position as leader may soon be ripe for the popping.