SEOUL – Even when Kim Jong Un was nowhere to be seen, he was everywhere.
From “Saturday Night Live” spoofs to the wild theories of journalists across the globe trying to parse his five-week absence from the public eye, the 30-ish leader of North Korea captured nearly as many headlines as he did when he threatened to nuke his enemies last year.
The mystery ended Tuesday when Kim appeared in state media, smiling broadly and supporting himself with a cane. While touring the newly built Wisong Scientists Residential District and another new institute in Pyongyang, Kim “took necessary steps with loving care,” a dispatch early Tuesday from the official Korean Central News Agency said in typical fawning style. The North did not say when the visit happened, nor did it address details of the leader’s health.
This bewildering ability to command attention by doing nothing says a lot about the North’s mastery of a propaganda apparatus that puts Kim at the center of everything. Remove for 40 days the sun around which that propaganda spins and the international media, both traditional and social, explode with speculation and rumors.
It also speaks to the fundamental difficulties everyone outside North Korea — academics, government officials, reporters — faces in understanding what is really happening inside a small, poor, autocratic country that jealously guards its internal workings as it ignores demands by the U.S. and its powerful allies to give up its nuclear bombs.
It is no mistake that the world obsesses about Kim’s extended time off from his usual, seemingly constant series of inspection tours of factories and frontline military bases. Ever since 1948, when Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, founded the country as a socialist rival to the U.S.-backed South, the Kim family has successfully sold the notion, at home and abroad, that they are North Korea.
The last time Kim had been seen in state media was at a Sept. 3 concert. In the weeks between, he missed several high-profile events that he normally attends. An official documentary released late last month made a single reference to Kim’s “discomfort” and showed video footage from August of him overweight and limping.Many analysts believe that while Kim may have some health issues, he is probably not in serious trouble. But many other people wondered while Kim was out of the spotlight.
“Is Kim Jong Un brain dead?” a South Korean lawmaker asked Adm. Choi Yoon-hee, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a parliamentary hearing Monday. Choi said no, and, without elaborating, said Kim’s health problems “are not severe enough to disrupt his status as the ruler of the country.”
There were many reasons to believe that even before he reappeared.
No unusual troop movements or other signs of a possible coup have emerged. Diplomacy at the highest level continues: Three members of his inner circle made a surprise visit to the South, something analysts say would be impossible without the leader’s blessing. Foreign tourists and aid workers still travel to the North, and there have been no reports of new restrictions or warnings for diplomats.
There is also nothing particularly unusual about North Korean leaders laying low for extended periods. Kim’s late father, Kim Jong Il, no fan of the limelight in his later years, would disappear at times; Kim Jong Un, who seems to genuinely like being at the center of things, took off without a word for three weeks in 2012.
But the apparent vanishing act of a man long seen in foreign media as a cartoonish, all-powerful overlord sitting on a nuclear arsenal while his people starve has proven endlessly fascinating. And while there is plenty of informed analysis from experts and frequent visitors to Pyongyang, there seems to be even more thinly sourced speculation.
Kim is, by turns, reported to be suffering from gout, from diabetes, from a brain hemorrhage, from a heart ailment, from a leg injury that required surgery from a French doctor, from mental illness or, according to a head-turning British report, from a cheese addiction.
North Korea’s completely controlled state media, meanwhile, chugged right along.
Kim is always seen in dispatches as the benevolent wellspring of all that is good and powerful. Archived footage of him plays regularly on state TV.
“Within North Korea, the people feel Kim’s presence even when he is absent,” Scott Snyder, a Korea expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a recent blog post. “Externally, North Korean propaganda has made Kim’s presence so critical that international media regard his absence as disquieting, even . . . without supporting indicators of instability or upset in Pyongyang.”
It could be that the speculation comes from South Korean officials who are eager to undercut the Kim family’s legitimacy, Adam Cathcart, a University of Leeds history lecturer, suggested in a recent online post he titled “North Korea Misinformation Bingo” that listed various “theories.” Maybe it is North Korea’s attempt to change the subject from its human rights abuse? Maybe it is “driven by cutthroat competition in the online journalism sector”?
The source is anyone’s guess, Cathcart wrote, but two things are certain: There are lots of rumors floating around, and “most of them are probably wrong.”
Part of the interest in Kim’s absence stems from worries about what would happen to the country if the leader died without securing a succession.
Kim Jong Un emerged as the anointed successor after Kim Jong Il disappeared from public view in 2008 — by most accounts because of a stroke. The elder Kim died in late 2011.
Kim Jong Un’s two older brothers, for whatever reasons, were deemed unfit to rule by Kim Jong Il, and little is known about his sister.
Kim’s disappearance from the public eye “does not appear likely to shake the regime, but it reveals the vulnerabilities the regime faces,” Snyder said.
Kim reportedly does have a direct heir who may one day extend the Kim dynasty into a fourth generation. Probably not soon, though. She is believed to be a toddler.