Speculation over Kim Jong-un's health isn't a foreign conspiracy, it's fuelled by North Korea's own secrecy

Kim, 36, last appeared publicly in the North’s state media April 11, when he presided over a meeting of the Politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party. It is not unusual for senior North Korean leaders to stay out of public view for weeks at a time

The New York Times April 22, 2020 07:39:29 IST
Speculation over Kim Jong-un's health isn't a foreign conspiracy, it's fuelled by North Korea's own secrecy

Seoul: There was one State event that the secretive leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, never missed: A visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun every 15 April to mark the birthday of his grandfather, the founder of the dynastic regime. In the mausoleum, both his grandfather and his father lie in state.

So when Kim was a no-show at this year’s anniversary in Pyongyang, it triggered speculation about his whereabouts and even his health. Such rumours gained further traction after Daily NK, a Seoul-based website relying on anonymous sources inside the North, reported Monday that Kim was recovering from heart surgery performed 12 April.

By Tuesday, South Korean officials were questioning the accuracy of the report. Kang Min-seok, a spokesman for President Moon Jae-in, said South Korea “has so far detected no special signs inside North Korea,” a stock phrase often used to cast doubt on unsubstantiated news reports.

North Korea also tried to dispel the speculation. On Tuesday, its official news agency said Kim had sent birthday gifts to exemplary workers and a birthday letter to the Cuban president Monday.

Such declarations will not necessarily quash the chatter, especially in a nuclear state where so much power is concentrated in a single leader.

Kim, 36, last appeared publicly in the North’s State media 11 April, when he presided over a meeting of the Politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party. It is not unusual for senior North Korean leaders to stay out of public view for weeks at a time.

But the inner workings of the top leadership in Pyongyang, the capital, have been cloaked in such secrecy that those disappearances always catch the attention of analysts, who look for signs of trouble within the country, especially a possible problem with Kim’s health. When his father, Kim Jong-il, died in 2011, outside intelligence officials did not know until the news was announced two days later on North Korean television.

Speculation over Kim Jonguns health isnt a foreign conspiracy its fuelled by North Koreas own secrecy

A photo distributed on 12 April by the Korean Central News Agency, the North Korean government media outlet. Korean Central News Agency via The New York Times

“For Kim Jong-un, not visiting the Kumsusan Palace on 15 April, is all but unthinkable in North Korea. It’s the closest thing to blasphemy in the North,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Centre for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. “It is reasonable to think that there is something temporarily wrong with his health, although it may stretch things too much if we say his life is in danger.”

The information blackout in North Korea means that rumours about military rebellions or mass political purges can often take months and even years to confirm, while some sensationalistic reports eventually prove false.

One outlandish report that made headlines around the world claimed that the body of Jang Song Thaek, Kim’s uncle, whose execution he ordered in 2013, had been fed to a pack of starved German shepherds. The origin of that story turned out to be an unattributed Chinese blog post. Generals who were reported by South Korean media to have been executed by Kim have sometimes resurfaced in new jobs.

North Korea’s media treats its top leaders like godlike figures and seldom mentions their health. But speculation about it has not always been unfounded.

In 2008, Kim Jong-il was absent from view for months. It was eventually confirmed that he had suffered a stroke. In his later years, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, developed a large cyst on the back of his head, but North Korean media never showed it in photos.

In 2014, Kim Jong-un disappeared for more than a month, prompting rumours that he might have been grounded by a severe hangover, gout or even a coup. North Korean state TV later showed him walking with a limp, saying that he was “not feeling well.” South Korean intelligence officials said Kim had a cyst removed from his ankle and that his ankle trouble could return.

The family history has fed speculation about health crises. Both Kim’s grandfather and father suffered various ailments, like diabetes, and died of heart failure.

The outside world saw Kim as an adult for the first time in 2010, when he debuted as his father’s heir at a party meeting. He was already portly by then, but he has since gained more girth. Kim is also a heavy smoker, and in recent years, his face has often assumed a puffy and tired complexion.

The current round of speculation started after South Korea said the North had launched short-range cruise missiles off its east coast on 14 April, as part of Kim Il-sung’s birthday celebration. Although Kim Jong-un has attended similar missile tests, State media this time did not report the launch. It also did not report whether there had been an annual national meeting of party officials in Pyongyang on the eve of the 15 April anniversary.

Both of those omissions were highly unusual.

Some analysts said North Korea may have skipped the national meeting this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. But its rubber-stamp parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, met on 12 April.

The rumours intensified after Daily NK quoted an anonymous source as saying that Kim had undergone a cardiovascular procedure at Hyangsan Hospital, a clinic dedicated to treating the Kim family, on 12 April.

The website said Kim was recuperating at a villa near the hospital, which is in the foothills of Mount Mohyang, north of Pyongyang. But most of the doctors called in from Pyongyang returned to the capital a week later because Kim had recovered sufficiently, it said.

Daily NK, one of a slew of Internet-based news outlets in South Korea that specialise in covering the North, has ferreted out news about hunger, floods and unofficial market activities in the North, often by using defectors as reporters. But many stories by such outlets contradict each other and remain unconfirmed.

Rumours about Kim’s health carry serious overtones: What happens to a nuclear State when the leader who has executed or purged all potential challengers to his power, including his own uncle, is suddenly gone?

Kim is too young to have a grown-up child to continue the Kim family dynasty, which has ruled North Korea since its founding at the end of World War II. Analysts instead focus on Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, who has accompanied her brother to meetings with the leaders of South Korea, China and the United States.

Kim Yo-jong has emerged as a key aide to her brother. Last month, she issued a statement under her own name attacking South Korea’s presidential office and calling it an “imbecile.” In another statement last month, she revealed that President Donald Trump had sent a letter to Kim Jong-un expressing his willingness to help the North battle the coronavirus . She called Trump’s letter “a good judgment and proper action.”

“In recent weeks, she has positioned herself as the public face of North Korea, as her brother’s spokesman, chief of staff and national security adviser,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea expert at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

“She is the natural heir to the throne, as the Kim family regime is more a dynasty than republic,” he added. “One thing Miss Kim has going for herself and prospects for regime preservation is that she is a known entity both within and outside North Korea.”

Lee Byong-chol, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, said the North’s deeply patriarchal elites would find it hard to accept a young, inexperienced female leader. Instead, Choe Ryong Hae, the current No 2 in the government hierarchy, could fill a power vacuum created by Kim Jong-un’s death.

Either way, a new leadership in Pyongyang could presage a new bout of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. A change at the top has always unleashed military provocations like weapons tests or bloody purges of top generals and officials, as the leader struggled to establish his own totalitarian grip on power at home and show his mettle to external enemies.

“I would not be surprised even if he died today or tomorrow,” Lee said. “What should worry us is how power in North Korea is going to be realigned after his death.”

Choe Sang-Hun c.2020 The New York Times Company

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