After not being seen in public for almost a month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reappeared Saturday in state media reports looking noticeably slimmer.
Analysts and foreign intelligence agencies have long pored over what little information escapes North Korea for hints of what is going on inside the Hermit Kingdom. But with the country closing its borders completely during the covid pandemic, Kim watchers have seized upon his apparently slimmer waistline as a potential sign of -- something.
If Kim simply slimmed down to be healthier, then that "likely improves his position at home" and "provides more predictability perhaps for regional actors like Japan, [South Korea] and the U.S. who may have greater confidence that he will be running the show," Vipin Narang told NK News.
"If [the sudden weight loss] is due to a health condition, though, the jockeying for his succession may already be happening behind the scenes, and that volatility could be trouble for the outside world," added Narang, a political science professor at MIT.
NK News went so far as to compare enlarged images of Kim's wrist from the past seven months. In a picture from November, the leader's $12,000 IWC Portofino Automatic watch appeared to fit snugly around his wrist. But more recent photos show Kim wearing his watch with more strap to spare.
"It's ridiculous that people are turning to analyzing how loose his wrist watch might be," said Jean H. Lee, former Pyongyang bureau chief for The Associated Press and host of a new podcast on North Korea. "And yet, if you look at the side-by-side photos, it does look like he lost some weight. And there is a real reason for concern: his father and grandfather both died of heart attacks."
It's far from the first time that people have scrutinized images of Kim for signs of his health and personality in a bid to learn something about an enigmatic strongman who sits atop a nuclear arsenal.
When the dictator met South Korean President Moon Jae-in in 2018, one South Korean newspaper asked seven experts to spend hours reviewing footage for clues about the North Korean leader. The investigation suggested Kim was wearing insoles to inflate his height.
When Kim's appearance on a golf cart ride last year ended rumors he was gravely ill, some medical experts speculated that a small mark on his wrist was proof he had undergone a medical procedure.
Even his ascension in 2011 was shrouded in mystery, as U.S. officials did not know of his father's death for two days, until the regime announced it.
When images of Kim himself aren't available, analysts and online sleuths sometimes turn to satellite imagery for signs of his planes, motorcades, trains and boats.
Though such analysis can sometimes seem absurd, it is a measure of how little we really know about North Korea, Lee said. "They manage to keep such a tight lid on what's actually happening, that it's almost random that we find out that something is amiss. So that's why we watch these absences or changes so closely."
Kim's health has long been a concern given his body weight, which South Korean intelligence has estimated at over 300 pounds, and heavy smoking habit. But he also has the best medical care North Korea can muster and the ability to call on experts from Russia or China, which maintain close ties with the regime in Pyongyang.