Kim Jong Un’s health is one of the most coveted topics for all North Korea watchers, and for good reason. Stating the obvious, a health crisis for the North Korean leader raises a number of uncertainties, especially if there is no contingency plan in place. Any resulting power vacuum could seriously destabilize the country, which would have severe repercussions for the Korean Peninsula, the region and possibly even the world. Growing public interest in Kim’s health has translated into increased media speculation in recent years—triggered by his unexpected or longer-than-usual public absences, visible weight loss and even a patch on the back of his neck—reaching a point where South Korea’s National Intelligence Service felt it necessary to deny the rumors repeatedly.
This theme may be in high demand for outside observers, but for rare exceptions, any North Korean media discussion of the top leader’s health remains taboo due to its extremely sensitive nature. And while it may be tempting to delve into this highly popular and important theme, analysis of Kim’s health conditions by nonmedical experts using limited open-source information is a risky business that can easily mislead rather than inform readers. Limited access to North Korean media, particularly for the general public in South Korea, and the intricacies of propaganda analysis make this already elusive topic even more challenging to tackle.
This article offers a few thoughts on the latest wave of media speculation surrounding Kim’s health from the vantage point of one North Korean media analyst. The goal here is not to change the prevailing media narrative, but rather to take this opportunity to review two important components of propaganda analysis: avoid over-parsing single data points and contextualize.
Not Everything Is About Kim’s Health
Last week, countless media outlets reported that a North Korean television documentary indirectly acknowledged Kim’s health issues. In one scene of the said documentary, Kim was shown carefully making his way down a set of stairs at a housing construction site. Multiple media reports characterized this as a “limp” or “struggle.” Whether Kim’s gait in that scene is a limp or caution—I leave to medical professionals to decide.
However, what reinforced the interpretation that this film was alluding to Kim’s health was the dramatic narration of that particular footage. Translated, it states:
Our Marshal’s [Kim Jong Un’s] image, which was more warmly engraved in our people’s hearts in the past year, was one of a strong and tenacious father who blocked all the snow and rainstorms of trial to defend the fate and future of millions of children, and one of a mother who suffers and worries a lot, who wears her whole self out [자신의 한몸 깡그리 녹이시며] and makes all of the people’s dreams come true. (Emphasis added by author.)
One definition of the verb 녹다 (녹이시며) in a North Korean-to-English dictionary is: “be tired (worn) out; be dead (=dog) tired; be done up.”
Some media reports singled out the expression “wears her whole self out” as an oblique reference to Kim’s health issues resulting from hard work for the people (overlooking the fact that Kim was also described as “strong and tenacious” in that same sentence). Their translation of that particular expression was “completely withered away.” The reader shall judge whether “withered away” is a good rendering of the dictionary-provided definition of “tired (worn) out.”
Linking the expression “wears her whole self out” (or “completely withered away”) to Kim’s health begs two questions. First, have North Korean media in the past used this expression or its variations, and if so, in what context? Second, should this type of expression in a television documentary be interpreted literally?
North Korean print media from time to time have used similar formulations—most commonly “his whole self burning [한몸 깡그리 불태우시는]” or “devoting his whole self [한몸 깡그리 바쳐가시는]”—meant to be metaphors to emphasize a Kim leader’s dedication to the people. For example, the party daily published a poem in the summer of 2009—well after Kim Jong Il had recovered from the previous year’s stroke—mentioning “his whole self burning” with determination to shoulder the fate of the country. More recently, the party daily carried a political essay lauding Kim Jong Un for “devoting his whole self” to the people. Furthermore, North Korean media have long employed an array of expressions to refer to the Kim leaders’ fatigue. For example, “short and uncomfortable sleep and rice balls [쪽잠과 줴기밥]” is a classic formulation state media have used to describe Kim Jong Il sacrificing good sleep and food in his hard work for the people.
The second question relates to understanding North Korean leadership documentaries. These programs use a combination of music, footage and hyperbole narrated by well-trained announcers to maximize the dramatic effect and bring out the viewer’s utmost sense of loyalty to the leader. Given this context, the language used in these documentaries—particularly if it is a vague figure of speech—should not be given the same weight as that in North Korean media reports on Kim’s activities, where language is scrubbed more carefully.
2014 Deja-Vu? Not Exactly
Many media reports that keyed in on Kim’s health in the documentary also likened the scene and the narration to a program from September 2014, carried in the midst of Kim’s protracted absence from the public view. While showing Kim visibly limping during his guidance visits, the 2014 leadership documentary acknowledged the leader’s health issue by saying he carried on his field inspections “despite not feeling well [불편하신 몸이시건만].” Kim had been shown limping on state television from July of that year, and South Korean intelligence confirmed Kim had ankle surgery during his long absence.
The situation leading up to the documentary in 2014—Kim Jong Un’s indisputable limp—and a clear reference to his health in the program both make the 2014 program different from the recent television documentary. Kim has had no apparent health problems in recent years: the South Korean intelligence denied rumors of supposed health problems triggered by his 20-day absence in 2020 and his visible weight loss in 2021. The “wear out” formulation in the documentary by itself (or with claims of a limp) is too weak to be taken as an allusion to Kim having health issues. More importantly, this metaphor certainly is not in the same category as the straightforward “not feeling well” formulation used in the 2014 documentary. North Korean television’s indirect acknowledgment in June 2021 of Kim’s weight loss would have been a better point of comparison for the 2014 documentary, as both referred to Kim’s health or physical conditions.
Parsing is an important component of propaganda analysis, and identifying the right element to parse, and parsing it in the right context, is crucial to sound analysis. Taking a single North Korean behavior and parsing it in isolation without considering the broader trend or historical patterns or parsing it in the wrong context could easily lead the analyst astray. This is complicated by the fact that each North Korean media vehicle that is relaying the message is unique. For example, as noted earlier, dramatic, exhortative language in a television leadership documentary is not intended to carry the same weight as a news report on Kim Jong Un’s activity. Hopefully, we can take this into account the next time we read or see what appears to be unusual or interesting in North Korean media.
조선작가동맹 시문학분과위원회, “<서사시> 이 세상 끝까지, 세월 끝까지,” Rodong Sinmun, July 8, 2009, 4.
김철, 리룡민, “[정론] 위민헌신의 숭고한 세계,” Rodong Sinmun, April 26, 2021, 1.