Analysis International

Where is Kim Jong-un?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a politburo meeting of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang on April 11, 2020.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a politburo meeting of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang on April 11, 2020.   | Photo Credit: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

Is he unwell? Is he staying away from the public during the time of the novel coronavirus crisis? Or is his retreat part of some tactical plan?

The Internet is abundant with speculations about the health of Kim Jong-un. What triggered the rumours was his absence from the Day of the Sun celebrations on April 15 marking the birth anniversary of Kim Il-sung, his grandfather and the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK that is popularly called North Korea). This is the first time Mr. Kim is missing the Day of the Sun festivities, the most important holiday in North Korea, since becoming leader in 2011 after his father’s death. Mr. Kim was last seen in the state media on April 12 when he visited an air force base. On April 11, he had attended a Polit Bureau meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang, the capital city.

The first bomb was dropped by Daily NK, a Seoul-based media outlet largely run by North Korean defectors, on April 20. It claimed, quoting anonymous sources in North Korea, that Mr. Kim underwent a cardiovascular surgery and was recovering at one of his countryside villas. Following the Daily NK story, Japanese magazine Shukan Gendai reported last week that Mr. Kim had a heart attack and the North Korean doctors did an emergency surgery to insert arterial stents. The procedure went bad, leaving the leader brain dead, the report claimed, quoting an unnamed Chinese medical source. On April 25, Reuters carried a report, saying China had despatched a team, including medical personnel, to North Korea to “advise” Mr. Kim.

Watch | Where was Kim Jong-Un?

Not the first time

This is not the first time Mr. Kim is disappearing from the public. In 2014, he went missing from the state media for over a month, triggering speculations about his health, but later reappeared with a cane. This time the rumours are more serious with one report claiming that he’s in a vegetative situation and unnamed American intelligence officials telling the CNN that he’s in “grave danger”. In 1986, when the South Korean military claimed that Kim Il-sung was dead, the state media in Pyongyang immediately denied it and published reports of the leader greeting Mongolian visitors at the Pyongyang airport. But this time, despite speculations spamming the Internet for days, there was no confirmation or negation of the reports from the North Korean side, which in turn is adding fuel to the rumour mills.

So what we know for sure is that Mr. Kim is out of the public eye for now, at a time when the coronavirus crisis is shaking the whole world (North Korea’s claim is that there’s no virus case in the country). There could be at least three possibilities. The reports about his health condition could be true and he’s either in a serious condition or recovering. Two, Mr. Kim, a chain smoker and overweight, could be staying away from the public during the time of the virus crisis. Or his retreat could be part of some tactical plan.

No world leader or intelligence official with name has confirmed the reports about Mr. Kim’s ill health. When U.S. President Donald Trump was asked about the report, he called it “incorrect”. Moon Chung-in, a special adviser on national security to South Korea President Moon Jae-in, said on Sunday that “Kim Jong-un is alive and well”. He said Mr. Kim had been staying in the east coast resort town Wonsan since April 13. On Saturday, 38 North, a North Korea-focussed website, had released a satellite image of a train that “probably belongs to Mr. Kim”, parked at the Leadership Railway Station near the leader’s compound in Wonsan. “The train’s presence... does lend weight to reports that Kim is staying at an elite area on the country’s eastern coast,” said the report.

Potential successor

Mr. Kim’s absence from the public has also triggered speculations on who could be his successor. When reporters posed this question to U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien last week, he said, the “basic assumption would be maybe it would be someone in the family,” adding that it’s too early to talk about it as “we don’t know what condition Chairman Kim is in”.

Mr. Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, has been seen as a potential successor. His older full-brother Kim Jong-chol has largely stayed out of politics, while Ms. Kim is an important party leader. She is currently the Deputy Director of the Workers’ Party’s Department of Propaganda and Agitation. She visited South Korea during the 2018 Winter Olympics, and had attended Mr. Kim’s summits with Mr. Trump and South Korean leader Moon. Ms. Kim’s rise in a party that has been tightly controlled by the men of the Kim family had made headlines. As journalist Barbara Demick wrote in The New Yorker, if the speculations about Mr. Kim’s health are true and North Korea is trying to identify his successor, “the last man standing” could “quite possibly be a woman”.

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 9:21:17 AM |

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