Update 6/12/18: Kim Jong-un brought his own toilet to his summit in Singapore with President Donald Trump. South Korean newspaper The Chosunilbo says the portable toilet's purpose is to “deny determined sewer divers insights into the supreme leader's stools." He also deployed decoy planes and packed his own food to try to prevent poisoning.
North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un does things his own way, to put it mildly. So it’s maybe not that surprising to learn that he never uses public restrooms, instead traveling with a personal toilet to prevent his precious bodily excretions from falling into the wrong hands. Lee Yun-keol, who worked in a North Korean Guard Command unit until 2005, told the Washington Post that “the leader’s excretions contain information about his health status so they can’t be left behind.”
It’s the kind of paranoid idiosyncrasy you’d expect from someone raised from birth to lead the “hermit kingdom,” forever besieged by enemies. But what insight could a savvy spy really glean from, say, a Kim Jong-un stool sample?
The Supreme Leader’s purloined poop likely wouldn’t reveal any state secrets, says Colleen Kelly, a gastroenterologist and a microbiome expert from the American Gastroenterological Association. Nothing about the status of North Korea’s nuclear program, for instance—though it could show us some things about Kim’s general health.
You’d start with a basic visual examination. Kelly explains that human feces is about 75 percent water; the remaining quarter is a solid mass, mostly bacteria and undigested food. Most people expel about 120 grams of poop a day. A high-fiber diet means more undigested mass—people with high-fiber diets can produce three times the average amount of poop. “Looking at someone’s stool, you can get a good idea of the fiber content of their diet,” says Kelly, who's also an assistant professor of medicine at Brown University.
Not exactly an earth-shaking bit of spycraft, that. Finding blood in the stool, on the other hand, means internal bleeding—a real problem. “At whatever age you are, if you see blood in your stool, that’s not normal,” she says. “Never ignore blood in the stool.” She mentions a recent spike in colorectal cancer, even among relatively young people, in their 20s and 30s, as added reason to take bloody stool seriously. (Mucus, on the other hand: nothing to worry about.)
Consistency can reveal some things about the digestive system, Kelly says. Harder, more pellet-like samples mean a longer time spent in the colon, where water is leached out; that suggests constipation, while a watery sample indicates a faster transit through the body. Bits of food might suggest diet, as would changes in color. (Beets might produce a reddish sample, for example, while iron or Pepto-Bismol can both turn it black.) “All of these are variations of normal,” Kelly says.
Going beyond the simple visual examination, analysts could start looking at the bacteria in Kim’s stool to get a sense of what’s in his gut—in his microbiome. When that microbiome is out of whack, suffering from a lack of diversity of bacteria, scientists call that dysbiosis, and a whole range of health conditions have been associated with it. In Kim’s case, you could probably recognize his obesity from his stool, Kelly says, as that’s associated with dysbiosis.
Again, that’s not telling the spies something they don’t already know. But his microbiome might also indicate hypertension, diabetes, an autoimmune disease, or any of a growing list of illnesses connected to dysbiosis. “You can’t necessarily diagnose any one of those individual disease by looking at someone’s stool,” Kelly says, “but those patterns of bacteria might indicate an underlying condition.” You could probably tell whether he’s eating a plant-based diet or is more of a carnivore. And you’d be able to tell whether Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is a smoker. (He is.)
More seriously, discovering cancer DNA in his stool could indicate advanced polyps or even full-blown colon cancer. (Here Kelly encourages everyone to get a colonoscopy. If that’s too invasive or undignified, at the very least consider an at-home colon cancer screening that works simply by mailing your poop to a lab.)
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So spies probably aren’t going to uncover any secrets pawing through stool. Unsurprisingly, that hasn’t stopped them from trying. Joseph Stalin reportedly stole stool and urine samples from world leaders, even designing special toilets for surreptitiously collecting them from Mao Zedong. The Chinese leader supposedly spent ten days eating, drinking, and providing waste to be pored over by Soviet analysts. Later, the CIA and Britain’s MI-6 supposedly failed trying to secure a sample from Mikhail Gorbachev.
These stories may be largely apocryphal, or real-life examples the type of skullduggery spies try because...why not? It’s unclear whether poop has ever been a valuable intelligence asset. But scientists see a lot of potential. One Harvard researcher is studying the stool of elite athletes, while Kelly works on the American Gastroenterological Association Fecal Microbiota Transplantation National Registry, a long-term study of patients who’ve had FMT—a fecal transplant used to change their microbiome. These researchers want to know: Are there hidden effects of altering the gut bacteria? If a skinny patient receives a transplant from an obese donor, for example, does it lead to weight gain? Or vice versa?
We’re not sure yet, as the microbiome still has plenty of secrets. Just maybe not the kind that appeal to spies.
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