Nuclear-armed North Korea returned to the spotlight Tuesday after contradictory media reports said leader Kim Jong Un was in critical condition while others denied he was gravely ill — news that would have serious implications for Tokyo as Japan and the world continue to grapple with the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
Citing unidentified U.S. officials, Bloomberg News reported that Kim, who has often been the subject of caricatures over his weight and reportedly unhealthy lifestyle, was said to be in critical condition after undergoing heart surgery last week.
The White House said it was unsure of his current condition, but was keeping a close eye on developments in North Korea.
“We’re monitoring these reports very closely and, as you know, North Korea is a very closed society,” U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien said in an interview with Fox News. “There’s not a free press there. They’re parsimonious with the information that they provide about many things, including the health of Kim Jong Un, and so we’re monitoring those developments closely.”
The report that Kim was ill came after The Daily NK, a Seoul-based internet news site that employs defectors and informants in the country and has a history of breaking big stories — such as the North’s 2009 currency devaluation — separately reported that he had undergone a “cardiovascular surgical procedure” on April 12 and was recovering.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga offered a muted response, saying the government was watching the situation.
However, South Korea and China, the North’s sole ally and patron, threw cold water on the reports of Kim’s ill health.
“We have no information to confirm regarding rumors about Chairman Kim Jong Un’s health issue that have been reported by some media outlets. Also, no unusual developments have been detected inside North Korea,” Blue House spokesperson Kang Min-seok was quoted as saying.
Reuters, meanwhile, reported that Kim was not believed to be critically ill, citing an official with the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department. The department oversees relations between the two countries.
North Korean state-run media said on April 11 that Kim attended a ruling Workers’ Party of Korea Politburo meeting and reported the next day that he had inspected a military unit, without revealing the date of the visit.
Eyebrows were raised a few days later when Kim was absent from celebrations marking the birthday of his late grandfather and founder of the country, Kim Il Sung — one of the nation’s most important holidays. The young dictator, thought to be 36 years old, is believed to have modeled his appearance after his grandfather.
Kim is no stranger to vanishing from public view for extended periods. In 2014, he suddenly disappeared, apparently the result of a bout with severe gout, only to emerge six weeks later with a cane. Kim, estimated to be 170 cm tall and some 135 kg, has been classified by some observers as extremely obese and possibly already suffering from diabetes.
The reports also come as the North maintains its stance that not a single case of the COVID-19 virus has been detected in the country — despite its porous border with China, where the outbreak originated. Defectors and experts have expressed doubts about this claim, but it, together with fraught U.S.-South Korea defense cost-sharing talks, would add another dimension to the discussion about Kim’s fate.
Whatever his condition, Jean Lee, a former Associated Press bureau chief in Pyongyang who covered the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, noted that the country never even acknowledged the father’s debilitating stroke and ensuing coma in August 2008.
“We got that confirmation from the French doctor who was flown to Pyongyang to treat the ailing leader. Don’t expect DPRK to confirm any heart surgery,” Lee wrote on Twitter, using the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Kim Jong Il later recovered, but died in December 2011 of a massive heart attack.
Indeed, Kim Jong Un’s health is one of North Korea’s most closely guarded secrets, and any potential incapacitation raises serious questions as to which elements of the political leadership control the country’s strategic nuclear deterrent and other weapons of mass destruction, said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University.
“This is a challenge as we have no information what the decision-making process is behind their deployment, who we would talk to if negotiations were to take place or if there was an escalation in tensions,” Nagy said.
The North is thought to have assembled 20 to 30 nuclear warheads as of June 2019 and to have the fissile material for an estimated 30 to 60 such weapons, as well as long-range missiles experts say could strike most, if not all, of the continental United States. More recently, however, Kim has used a spate of missile launches — in flagrant disregard of United Nations sanctions — to test weapons that could more effectively strike closer to home, such as in South Korea and potentially Japan.
According to Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official and author of a book on Kim’s nuclear program, if the North Korean leader is indeed incapacitated, “there’s no scenario where the military doesn’t gain in political power.”
“Even if a Kim death didn’t trigger a coup or civil uprising — the latter being even less likely than the former — just a normal hasty transition to another in the Kim lineage would end up empowering the military, similar to the way the hasty transition from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un facilitated the violence of 2010,” Jackson said.
Kim’s powerful younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, who was recently promoted as an alternate politburo member, would be “the natural heir” to the Kim dynasty if her brother has indeed been incapacitated or is dead, said Sung-Yoon Lee, a Koreas expert at The Fletcher School at Tufts University in the U.S.
“In recent weeks she has positioned herself as the public face of her brother’s spokesman, chief of staff, national security adviser,” Lee said. “She ridiculed (South Korean President) Moon (Jae-in) in early March, snubbed (U.S. President Donald) Trump later in the month, and is reportedly the head of the Department of Organization and Guidance, the locus of political power in the DPRK government hierarchy.”
But regardless of who is in power, Japan’s position on the North Korean nuclear issue is unlikely to change and hinges mainly on how the United States plays its cards.
Kim met Trump three times over 2018 and 2019 for denuclearization talks in pursuit of relief for crushing U.N. and unilateral sanctions over the North’s nuclear weapons program. However, diplomacy with Washington has largely been deadlocked over Trump’s refusal to loosen his sanctions chokehold on the country and Kim’s unwillingness to part with his “treasured nuclear sword.”
Still, if Kim is out of the picture, Japan would likely face three possible challenges immediately, said Nagy: a civil war that would have spillover effects such as a disruption to supply chains on the Korean Peninsula, a physical conflict and refugees.
And if a new leader does emerge, it’s likely to be in typical North Korean style — with guns blazing.
“Any new leader would likely need to demonstrate their nationalist credentials and commitment to military action, which could manifest as a nuclear test, missile testing or some other kind of provocation,” Nagy said.