Rumours are circling the virtual world that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is gravely ill following cardiovascular surgery on April 12, brought on by “excessive smoking, obesity, and overwork.” That’s according to the Seoul-based Daily NK online newspaper, which focusses on North Korean affairs. Specifically, it is believed that he underwent heart surgery.
On the weekend, a Hong Kong broadcast network claimed that Kim had actually died, citing a “very solid source”, while reports in a Japanese magazine said he is in a “vegetative state”. Australian intelligence officials are treating the reports seriously, with a government source telling the Sydney Morning Herald that it was leaning towards the dictator being in some kind of trouble.
The 36-year-old missed the April 15 celebration of his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s birthday — the nation’s most important holiday — and has not been seen in public for over a week. Until now, he had never failed to visit the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun and its mausoleum for the founder of the dynastic regime, where both his grandfather and father lie in state.
“For Kim Jong-un not visiting the Kumsusan Palace on April 15 is all but unthinkable in North Korea,” Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, told the New York Times. “It’s the closest thing to blasphemy in the North… 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.”
“We’re monitoring these reports very closely,” United States National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters and the White House. “As you know, North Korea is a very closed society, there is not a free press there, they are parsimonious with the information they provide on many things, including the health of Kim Jong-un.”
South Korea was non-committal on the claims, with the executive office saying it had detected “no unusual signs” coming from its neighbour. Similarly, a Chinese Communist Party offical told Reuters there was no reason to believe the dictator was critically ill.
“There have been a number of recent rumours about Kim’s health,” said Bruce Klinger, former CIA deputy division chief for North Korea and senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “If Kim is hospitalised, it would explain why he wasn’t present on the important April 15th celebrations… But, over the years, there have been a number of false health rumours about Kim Jong-un or his father. We’ll have to wait and see.”
In 2014, Kim Jong-un disappeared for over a month before returning with the aid of a cane. This was likely the result of having a cyst removed from his ankle. In 2008, his father Kim Jong-il missed a parade celebrating North Korea’s 60th anniversary after suffering a stroke, which ultimately lead to his death three years later.
“In the intelligence community, we referred to North Korea as the hardest of hard targets,” Klingner added. “When I took over in the Korea branch, I had been working on the Soviet Union, and the North Koreans made the Soviets look like an open book.”
Should something happen to Kim Jong-un, the immediate question is who would succeed him as Supreme Leader. His most trusted ally is his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, who is believed to be the brains behind his domestic and international public image, and also the nation’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. The pair lived together while attending school in Switzerland, growing close in what was effectively exile.
“She has direct access to and strong influence on Kim Jong-un,” Leonid Petrov, a North Korea expert at Sydney’s International College of Management, told the Guardian. “She is not associated with his purges or military brinkmanship, but knows all about them. She is a trusted political figure who helps Kim maintain a positive public image when he is dealing with foreigners or South Koreans.”
Despite Yo-jong’s importance in the regime, it is unlikely that a female leader would be accepted.
“North Korea is a Confucian country where seniority and masculinity are respected,” Petrov added. “She is Kim’s most trusted ally, but no more than that.”
“It would be unprecedented and shocking for there to be a female Great Leader but it wouldn’t be heresy,” North Korea expert Sung-Yoon Lee told the New York Post. “The need to keep power in the family trumps everything, including any traditions of chauvinism or misogyny in North Korea.”
Kim had his older half-brother assassinated in Malaysia in 2017.
If North Korea’s elites can’t move past their patriarchal limitations, and with Kim Jong-un’s children too young to continue the family dynasty, the power vacuum could be filled by current government second-in-charge Choe Ryong-hae. The 70-year-old Vice Marshal was one of three senior officials sanctioned by the US for human rights abuses last year.
Alternately, some have even suggested that North Korea could be ruled by oligarchy, as the Soviet Union was after the death of Joseph Stalin.
Past changes of power have brought with them purges of top military and government officials, and displays of military might. At stake is peace on the peninsula, the possibility of opening up to the world, and crucially its nuclear weapons program.
At a time when states are focused on addressing the Covid-19 pandemic, China will likely assume the leadership role for the international community in engaging on these issues with a new North Korea — should Kim Jong-un pass away — further elevating its position in the post-coronavirus world.
Confirmation of Kim’s health status will ultimately come from North Korea’s state media, though it won’t come quickly. It took up to four days to announce the deaths of his father and grandfather.