Seoul — North Korea was one of the most isolated nations on the planet even before the coronavirus pandemic led dictator Kim Jong Un to shut its borders more than a year and a half ago. The Kim regime has claimed ever since then that itshave successfully kept out of , but while first-hand information from inside the "Hermit Kingdom" is virtually non-existent, even Kim appeared to acknowledge this week that his country is struggling.
The ruler's own dramatic, unexplained weight loss, meanwhile, has renewed speculation that he could be struggling personally with health issues.
Kim publicly berated senior officials within his regime earlier this week for failing to secure the country from COVID-19, accusing the unnamed individuals of, "creating a great crisis in ensuring the security of the state and safety of the people," which he said had resulted in unspecified "grave consequences."
North Korea has yet to confirm a single case of COVID-19 to the World Health Organization, but Kim's statement was taken widely by analysts as an admission that the virus has gained a foothold in North Korea, likely creeping across its difficult-to-secure border with China.
"There seems to be a big problem in taking pre-emptive measures for COVID in cities such as Sinuiju or Hyesan, etc. that border with northeast parts of China," Dr. Cheong Seong-Chang, Director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, told CBS.
He added that the way in which Kim made the vague revelation, blaming senior officials in his own government, could indicate a shakeup and the replacement of key members of the governing politburo.
Kim made the remarks as he presided over an extended politburo meeting of the ruling Workers' Party on Tuesday, and some analysts have pointed to the fact that the large gathering was even allowed to go ahead as evidence that any epidemic in North Korea could still be limited to border regions. However, given the country's weak health care infrastructure and unclear capacity to test for the virus, the scale of any COVID-19 outbreak is impossible to gauge.
"There is no possibility that North Korea will ever admit to an infection — even if there were mass transmissions, the North will definitely not reveal such developments and will continue to push forward an anti-virus campaign it has claimed to be the greatest," Hong Min, a senior analyst at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification, told the Associated Press. "But it's also clear that something significant happened and it was big enough to warrant a reprimanding of senior officials. This could mean mass infections or some sort of situation where a lot of people were put at direct risk of infections."
Some believe Kim's public dressing-down of anonymous senior officials was meant to signal to China, and the world at large, that North Korea does need help fighting a COVID-19 epidemic that it won't admit exists. Thus far the Kim regime has sought no coronavirus vaccine doses from the global COVAX initiative, nor from its closest ally, China.
Kim Jong Un's weight loss
The other great mystery keeping North Korea analysts busy over the last week has been a dramatic change in the young dictator's appearance. Photos of Kim from this summer show him much slimmer than he was less than a year ago.
South Korean media and analysts have long assumed that Kim, 37, could suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure, as he was significantly overweight. South Korean intelligence officials told lawmakers in 2020 that Kim could be tipping the scales at almost 310 pounds, leading to rampant speculation that he was at severe risk of cardiovascular disease — which killed both his father and his grandfather.
When the new images of the slimmed-down Kim emerged, they renewed fevered speculation in South Korea that he could be suffering from diabetes, which can lead to a sudden drop in body weight if insulin levels aren't managed.
North Korean media provided no explanation of Kim's new physique, but aired an interview with a "concerned citizen" who lamented the leader's changing form and said the North Korean people "were most heartbroken to see the respected General Secretary looking thinner." The individual, who spoke on state-controlled North Korean TV, said Kim's slimming-down had brought tears to their eyes.
Analysts note that, whatever the reason for Kim's weight loss, millions of people in his country struggle daily to find enough to eat. The already-battered North Korean economy has been decimated by the coronavirus border closure, cutting off the vital trade route with China.
While his people are starving and Kim's "obesity problem has been well known," Dr. Go Myong-Hyun, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, told CBS News that the North Korean media's commentary likely was aimed at engendering sympathy for the ruler, to keep the populace behind him and avoid resentment.
"North Korean state media used this opportunity to spin the story around Kim Jong Un's weight loss as a pre-emptive measure to ensure his regime," Go said, by "creating a perception that Kim Jong Un understands and feels the pain ordinary North Korean people are experiencing right now."
Kim admitted on June 17 at a plenary meeting of the ruling Workers' Party that his country was facing food shortages, blaming a typhoon and flooding that wiped out crops last year. But like everything else in the secretive nation, the extent of the problem remains unclear.
CBSNews.com Foreign Editor Tucker Reals contributed to this report.