Seoul, South Korea — North Korea held a parade on Thursday showcasing military dogs and virus workers in orange hazmat suits, but leader Kim Jong Un still managed to seize the spotlight by looking thinner and more energetic than he has in years. During the event late Wednesday, Kim, wearing a cream-colored suit and a shiny white tie, emerged as the clock struck midnight. He beamed in response to thunderous applause from performers and spectators filling Pyongyang’s brightly illuminated Kim Il Sung Square, named after his grandfather, the country’s founder.
He smiled widely, waved to the crowd and kissed children who presented him with flowers before taking his spot on a balcony to observe the parade. He laughed vigorously and applauded the marchers throughout the event, while holding animated chats with senior officials.
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It was a stark change from 2018, when TV footage showed him struggling to catch his breath while accompanying South Korean President Moon Jae-in on a short hike to North Korea’s Mount Paektu during a period of diplomatic engagement. Moon, who is three decades older than Kim, didn’t seemed fazed by the walk at all.
“His face is clearly thinner and he is moving much more vigorously,” said Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korea studies at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University.
Kim’s weight loss became noticeable in June, when he made his first public appearance in weeks to convene a ruling party meeting. Some North Korea watchers then said that Kim, who is about 5 feet, 8 inches tall and has previously weighed 308 pounds, may have lost 22-44 pounds.
Most experts say Kim’s weight loss is more likely a result of efforts to improve his shape than an indicator of health problems, considering his regular public activity. It may also have a political purpose.
Kim is facing perhaps his toughest moment as he approaches a decade of rule, with North Korea wrestling with U.S.-led economic sanctions over its nuclear weapons, pandemic border closures that cause further strain to its broken economy, and food shortages made worse by floods in recent summers.
It has become crucial for Kim to build an image as a young and vigorous leader who can navigate the country out of trouble, analyst Park said. Such image-making efforts would align with the latest parade, which showcased civil defense units involved in efforts to rebuild the economy and communities destroyed by floods and emphasized a domestic message for unity.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Kim, with his weight loss and cheerful demeanor at the parade, is likely trying to project an image of a “normal statesman” who engages with the public.
“He’s also a husband and a father of three children who is approaching his 40s, so it isn’t strange that he would care about his health,” Yang said.
Kim’s health is the focus of keen outside attention as the 37-year-old leader hasn’t publicly anointed a successor who would take control of North Korea’s advancing nuclear arsenal targeting Asian rivals and the American homeland. He has been known for heavy drinking and smoking and comes from a family with a history of heart problems. His father and grandfather, who ruled North Korea before him, both died of heart issues.
“Considering the North’s political system, where the supreme leader decides everything, Kim’s health is an extremely important security matter,” Park said. “It’s likely there were internal concerns that he was overweight, and it would have been important for Kim to reduce those concerns and present himself as a young and healthy leader who’s capable of doing things.”
Dr. Cheong Seong-Chang, Director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, told CBS News that Kim may also have wanted with the parade, to “show the world that North Korea is safe from the coronavirus, as they have repeatedly said.”