North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has never been known to turn down a meal — especially expensive and fattening French cuisine he has flown in from Paris. But lately, Kim has been looking decidedly slimmer. While some Western observers speculated he was ill, experienced Kim watchers believed he was just on a diet.
It’s strange that Kim would choose a time to diet immediately after telling the North Korean people that there were going to be food shortages. Whether it’s a diet or he’s got some kind of worm that will kill him soon isn’t known, but his people are beginning to notice and become concerned.
“Seeing respected general secretary [Kim Jong Un] looking emaciated breaks our people’s heart so much,” an unidentified resident of Pyongyang said in an interview aired by state TV.
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“Everyone is saying that their tears welled up,” he said.
Just as they were ordered to do.
When Kim reappeared in state media in June after not being seen in public for almost a month, analysts at NK News, a Seoul-based website that monitors North Korea, noted that his watch appeared to be fastened more tightly than before around an apparently slimmer wrist.
Given Kim’s tight grip on power in North Korea – and the uncertainty over any plans for a successor – international media, spy agencies, and specialists closely watch his health.
The food shortages are expected to really start biting in August and September, according to Kim. He’s hoping for millions of tons of grain before then from the international community.
Most nations don’t have much to spare, so he’s looking at the United States, Australia, and China to bail him and his impoverished nation out.
Realistically, China is the only nation with a compelling national interest in seeing the North Koreans avoid starvation. The Chinese Communists don’t want to see a couple of million North Koreans swarming their border, clamoring to get in. They may both be Communist countries, but Kim’s cult of personality is not a good fit for China.
But China won’t be able to prop up the entire North Korean economy, which independent analysts believe is already on the skids.
“By most indications, there appear to be food shortages in the range of 1.35 million to 1.5 million tons ―the worst food crisis since the Great Famine of the 1990s,” said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“But it would be a mistake to just view it as a food shortage. It is not just the result of typhoons and floods, but also due to major policy failures and corruption.”
According to Manning, there are a number of elements behind the shortage ― including North Korea’s inward-looking posture lasting more than a year, the admitted failures of its economic plans and its heightened vigilance about foreign influence ― which suggest some measure of internal turmoil, although he admits to not having a good sense of the internal dynamics.
William Brown, a former CIA analyst and member of the Korea Economic Institute of America’s board of directors, said it was more of a currency problem than an actual food shortage.
“The regime has lost control over corn and rice prices, which normally are capped, so there is now wild speculation in some places with prices soaring. This causes people to panic and store up grain, rather than sell it, adding to the shortages in marketplaces,” Brown said.
The big difference between the famine of the 1990s and this one that’s on the way is that in the 1990s, North Korea didn’t have 15-20 nuclear weapons. With no plan of succession, possible internal strife, a pandemic that still appears out of control, and a failing economy, it’s difficult to see anything but disaster in the near future for North Korea.