Based on actuarial tables, no insurance company is likely to issue him a life policy.
He will be 33 years old on January 8, but over the past four years his weight has ballooned from 198 pounds to 287. He parties, he smokes, he drinks heavily. He runs a country—a role in which he has had to make some very stressful decisions, such as which family members to execute. All this seems to be taking a toll on his health.
He is Kim Jong-un—the third generation of a family dynasty that has ruled North Korea since 1948. While his grandfather and North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, brutally ruled the country until his death in 1994, it was thought Kim Jong-un—who took power after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in 2011—would be a kinder, gentler leader since he had been educated in Europe.
In this Wednesday, April 9, 2014 image made from video, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un claps during the Supreme People's Assembly in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea's newly-selected parliament met for the first time on Wednesday in Pyongyang. It was the first time that North Korea has reassembled its parliament under new leader Kim. (AP Photo/KRT via AP Video) TV OUT, NORTH KOREA OUT
Kim must have slept through his classes. Instead, he has revealed himself to be just as brutal as his grandfather.
South Korea’s leadership, which closely monitors on-going activities to the north including Kim’s health, has been trying to get a handle on the Hermit Kingdom leader’s physical condition. With Pyongyang’s “Pillsbury Doughboy” putting on an average of 22 pounds of additional bulk per year for four years, Kim’s health has become a matter of national security for Seoul.
Having accumulated some weighty titles, the North Korean leader undoubtedly has developed a big head to carry upon his massive girth. In addition to “Dear Leader,” Kim is known to his people as “Superior Person,” “Respected Leader,” “Wise Leader,” “Brilliant Leader,” and a title perhaps more fitting of a Saturday Night Live television skit, “Dear Leader Who is a Perfect Incarnation of the Appearance that a Leader Should Have.”
However, if deprecating humor about their leader were not punishable by hard labor, North Koreans might attach the title of “The Incredible Bulk” as being more accurate.
Sadly, as Kim consumes more than his fair share of food, his people do not. As Kim’s tailor may focus on expanding his waistband, uniforms for North Korean soldiers are being tailored to accommodate an army of dwarfs.
Famines in the country during the 1990's left it with a generation of military conscripts for whom the minimum height standard had to be lowered in 2012. Today, it is set at 4’ 6”—a full one foot shorter than the minimum South Korean height standard.
A researcher at Seoul’s Institute for National Security Strategy, Kim Kwang-jin, acknowledges that the Dear Leader’s health situation is “not normal.”
In July 2014, the leader appeared with a limp in his gait. Two months later, his extended absence from the country’s state media spotlight and failure to attend a key parliamentary meeting sparked concerns about his health.
It was reported in September 2014 that the plump and pompous leader, at 5’ 9” already towering over his soldiers, wore higher heel shoes to further raise his height while touring military bases—fracturing his ankles due to his increased weight.
The North Korean media only reported at that time Kim suffered from “discomfort.” There was speculation he also had gout.
South Korean intelligence believes Kim is plagued with high blood pressure and respiratory problems—and that a contributing factor to both is job stress. Whether justified or not, Kim’s stress seems to flow from his belief those closest to him cannot be trusted.
This led him to remove two family members who were part of his inner circle and who had helped him make the transition to power after his father died.
Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was convicted of treason and corruption in 2013, and was quickly executed by a machine gun-armed firing squad. Perhaps because Jang was related through marriage to Kim’s aunt and not by blood, several of Jang’s family members were also reportedly executed.
Despite her husband’s demise, Kim Kyong-hui—Kim’s biological aunt—briefly remained in power. It is uncertain at this time whether she too was later executed or, as Pyongyang has reported, is undergoing treatment for an alcohol-related illness. This would not be surprising as Kim’s leadership has undoubtedly led many of Pyongyang’s elite to hit the bottle, not knowing if they too will find themselves targeted for elimination.
Kim has purged other members of his inner circle—including his defense chief, General Hyon Yong Chol. In an act of overkill, he was allegedly executed by anti-aircraft gunfire—the penalty for falling asleep during a meeting and talking back to the young leader.
Kim’s possible ill health is cause for concern for both the U.S. and South Korea.
In the case of both Kim’s grandfather and father, sons were groomed well ahead of time to continue the family dynasty’s succession. As a result, those successions did not cause de-stabilization on the Korean peninsula. But, with no anointed successor for Kim Jong-un similarly being groomed, the danger of infighting arising and spilling out beyond the North’s borders becomes a possibility.
One can well imagine why Kim may be feeling overly stressed.
Both Kim’s grandfather and father knew how to play the power game in North Korea. His grandfather maintained a balance of power between the party and military leadership while his father tilted in favor of the latter. But Kim has been playing a more dangerous game. He has randomly targeted members of both the military and the party for elimination or removal. Even membership in Kim’s inner circle is no guarantee of protection.
With little rhyme or reason as to who will fall into Kim’s sights next, conditions are ripe for the seed of rebellion to take root. Senior leaders may well be weighing the risks of a coup against having to eventually play execution roulette at the end of the barrel of a gun brandished by a Dear Leader gone mad.
In the 1st century A.D., Roman Emperor Nero suffered from madness. He killed his mother, ruled as a brutal tyrant, and fiddled as Rome burned. Ultimately, it all led to his demise. Factors may now be at play in North Korea that could spell a similar fate for Kim Jong-un.
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