Kim Jong-un (photo via Flickr user petersnoopy)
Until yesterday, nobody outside of Pyongyang’s political and military elite had seen or heard from Kim Jong-un for the better part of a month. Such is the occluded nature of North Korea that rumor and hearsay immediately rushed in to fill the void: Kim was terminally ill, Kim had developed an embarrassing bowel issue after consuming too much fried chicken and beer, Kim had been disposed of in a knife and dagger-style coup d’etat.
In the end, none of these things appear to be true. A South Korean newspaper reported yesterday that Kim is currently holed up in Bongwha Clinic, a hospital that only admits high-ranking government officials, recovering from ankle surgery. Apparently, Kim has become so festively plump that his feet can no longer sustain his magisterial bulk. He is too fat for his own legs.
It is reported that Kim sustained injuries to both his ankles during field supervisions in July, which were turned into compound fractures by his insistence on wearing his beloved Cuban heels as he wobbled around a tile factory inspecting the quality of their matte finish. His weight gain is hardly surprising. Kim, we’ve heard, is suffering from gout, caused by eating too much cheese, a habit he presumably took up while at school in Switzerland.
But Kim’s current plight masks a story that’s harder to point and laugh at. Since Kim took charge in 2011, we’ve watched the Dear Leader get fatter and fatter while ignoring the increasingly desperate plight of his malnourished people. Defectors talk of consistently terrible food rations and cannibalism, while the mysterious Office 39 continues to supply high ranking official with cash, beef and crystal meth. It’s a political system that is darker than the souls of men who wake up after a government-sponsored meth binge in a country they are complicit in starving.
In the 1990s, North Korea experienced one of the worst food shortages in history. An estimated 300,000 people died due to starvation or related illnesses. While it remains the most glaring example of the state’s failure to prioritize its resources, the Democratic People’s Republic is currently in the midst of a food crisis that threatens to match it.
The World Food Programme last month announced that it had experienced a 94.8 percent decrease in food aid to North Korea over the past 12 years. That’s a decrease from 900,000 metric tons to just 46,000. Most of the 133 houses visited by the WFP this year did not eat correctly; in 2014, 190 UN nation states did not even bother to fork up funding, meaning the majority of the $5.7 million that was raised came from Switzerland, Australia, and Canada.
The pervading argument here is that states have become tired with North Korea’s international policy, which is simply spending the vast majority of its internal budget on frivolities and nuclear armament while it allows its population to starve. To counter this, it extorts food aid from programs like the WFP via threats of violence to neighboring nations, like South Korea and Japan. The further Pyongyang sends it missiles, the louder its stomach is heard.
Without a drastic about-face, food aid to North Korea is going to go under, leaving the country with the impossible problem of polluted rice reserves, more weaponry than they know what to do with, and a disinterested worldwide population.
Whether by design or not, the way Kim’s character is displayed publicly—absurd, detached—transforms him from the purveyor of widespread malnutrition into a Nickelodeon villain who is best suited to memes for cheap laughs. It is preposterously easy to make fun of a fat political leader. He is, worryingly, perceived to be a box office clown. His kaleidoscope of unpredictability is evidence of a zany temperament. Yeah, he lost sleep over a tower block disaster, and is often captured smiling at freshly cooked pastries, but, for argument’s sake, he may have had someone executed with a flamethrower.
Do a quick Google Image search, and he seems capable of only two expressions; he's either smiling or furiously angry, with his face like a window into the puckered asshole of Hell.
He makes for interesting reading, but it’s the difficult sentences and numbers that will define the DPRK and our relationship to it for the next 50 years. Stories that focus on the hilarity of the buffoon in charge serve to distract our attention from the fact that 80 percent (or 20 million) North Koreans are suffering from a lack of food. Fundamentally, Kim’s glass ankles serve as a political smoke screen for the atrocities occurring on the ground.
And he is not the first. In January 2012 the absurd Mayor of Toronto Robert Ford, to a backdrop of political and social weariness, announced that he would be undertaking a Cut the Waist Challenge. Ford, who back then was merely a local idiot rather than an international fuck-up, was then sighted at a variety of fast-food joints in downtown Toronto, smuggling buckets of fried-chicken and coleslaw in his blacked-out Mercedes. As the story goes, Rob begins to cancel his weigh-ins, fearing public and personal backlash, before eventually being suckered back into the fold for the final weigh-in where he is so fat he cannot alight himself from the scales without twisting his ankle. Ford is now a laughing stock the world over (for a number of reasons), his tomfoolery only going so far to protect the credibility of his office.
Between Ford and Kim Jong-un, there's the making of a great comic curio, the story of the committed recidivist and the immense fat man, together on a journey to conceal the reputation of the most persistent political blind spots on the planet.
But there is nothing remotely funny about a leader who abuses his wealth, power, and status to harm himself and slowly strangle his population. While Ford’s twisted ankle was the unexpected precipitate of trying to integrate himself with the voters, Kim’s broken ones are symbolic of the ever widening gulf between him and his people. The fat get fatter and the thin get thinner. But in the end, it’s the food that gets them both.