Kim Jong-un Lost Weight. No One Knows How or Why.

SEOUL — All they had was TV footage — and a wristwatch.

When North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, re-emerged this month after a four-week hiatus from public view, outside analysts and news outlets began studying state news media for clues to explain his latest absence.

Right off the bat, they noticed that Mr. Kim, 37, looked considerably thinner than before. After comparing appearances by Mr. Kim on North Korean television in recent months, analysts noticed the brown leather band of his wristwatch looked a few notches tighter, supporting the idea that he had lost weight.

But that was as much as they had to go on.

Mr. Kim’s health, like the North Korean regime itself, is shrouded in such secrecy that experts are often forced to divine clues using pure guess work. Did he have a health scare? Or did the obese dictator of the world’s most isolated country finally decide to go on a diet?

These questions — and the obsessive attention to mundane details like Mr. Kim’s wristwatch — may seem like the idle prattle of celebrity gossip. But analysts say they must use every bit of information available to try and answer an even more serious question: What would happen to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and its people, who have been taught to worship Mr. Kim, if he were suddenly incapacitated?

Over the weekend, North Korean state media offered its own spin on Mr. Kim’s weight loss when it reported ordinary people’s reaction to seeing him at a nationally televised art performance.

“What made people, including myself, most heartbroken when we watched the show was how emaciated Dear Leader Kim Jong-un has looked,” a middle-aged North Korean man in a straw hat told the North’s state-run Central Television. “Everybody says they could hardly fight back tears.”

Mr. Kim, even after his weight loss, isn’t exactly svelte. He could easily weigh twice as much as many North Korean adults, according to some analysts. (One study estimated that North Korean refugees weighed about 115 pounds when they fled their home country, chronically stricken by food shortages.)

In the North, where all news reports are carefully censored and scripted by government propagandists, it is highly unusual for the state media to mention Mr. Kim’s physical appearance.

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