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Is North Korean leader Kim Jong Un dead? Is he incapacitated? Or is Kim, at a relatively young 36, merely sheltering from the deadly coronavirus that has rampaged across the globe?

In the information black hole that is North Korea, it’s virtually impossible to ascertain the status of his health — the country’s most closely guarded secret. This, however, has not prevented a steady stream of speculation about the dictator’s fate amid his more than two-week absence from public view.

This speculation grew after he was absent from celebrations marking the birthday of Kim Il Sung, his late grandfather and founder of the country, one of the nation’s most important holidays. Rumors and media reports have ranged from Kim being in a “vegetative state,” the casualty of a botched heart surgery, to him merely sheltering in the provinces, evacuating the capital to escape a COVID-19 outbreak among the Supreme Guard Command, the elite force that protects the Kim family.

While South Korean and Chinese officials have thrown cold water on reports of Kim’s ill health, U.S. President Donald Trump offered tantalizing — if contradictory — comments Monday.

“I do have a very good idea (about Kim’s health status), but I can’t talk about it now. I just wish him well. I’ve had a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un,” Trump said during a televised White House news conference.

“I hope he’s fine. I do know how he’s doing, relatively speaking,” he said. “You will probably be hearing in the not too distant future.”

Trump, however, later added: “Nobody knows where he is.”

Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea specialist who teaches at King’s College London, said that much of what we know points to Kim facing at least some kind of health concern.

“It seems obvious that there is something wrong with Kim Jong Un’s health, or at least precautionary steps to protect his health are being taken,” he said. “But South Korea, the U.S. and China seem unconcerned about Kim’s fate, which suggests to me … that this isn’t a life-threatening situation.

“So I would imagine that Kim will eventually come back in public.”

Whatever the case, despite the rampant speculation, the lack of clarity on Kim’s condition has brought into focus important considerations for the Asia-Pacific region, serving as an important thought exercise on the ramifications of a North Korean leader’s sudden death and how it and the world might grapple with such a scenario.

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, helps Kim sign a joint statement following a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Paekhwawon State Guesthouse in Pyongyang in September 2018. | PYONGYANG PRESS CORPS / POOL / VIA AP
Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, helps Kim sign a joint statement following a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Paekhwawon State Guesthouse in Pyongyang in September 2018. | PYONGYANG PRESS CORPS / POOL / VIA AP

The system and the elites

In the North, the Kim family is revered as living gods, with its dynasty of hereditary rulers known as the Mount Paektu bloodline, in reference to the country’s most sacred site. In the Stalinist dictatorship, Kim Jong Un wields absolute authority.

His absence, or the absence of another family member heading the regime, would raise serious concerns about its future, some observers say.

“North Korea needs a Kim at the helm, even if only as a figurehead,” said Pacheco Pardo. “North Korea is, above all, the country of the Kims.”

Pacheco Pardo is not alone in this view. David Maxwell, a retired U.S. special forces colonel and North Korea specialist at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, also believes that the North Korean system requires one-man — or woman — rule.

“All power and decision-making authority is centered on a single person,” according to Maxwell.

He said that a single, central authority “connected to the Paektu bloodline is essential for legitimacy,” noting that the regime has been built on the myth that Kim Il Sung was a brilliant and heroic anti-Japanese guerrilla leader said to have liberated Korea.

But while Kim Jong Un does play an important role in terms of regime legitimacy, other experts say there’s a danger in exaggerating the extent to which this is an issue for ordinary North Koreans.

“The country is not a totalitarian system and we should be wary of simply adopting the North Korean official narrative on Kim’s stature and role,” said Kevin Gray, a specialist on the two Koreas at the University of Sussex in England.

Gray points to Kim’s relatively short time as the country’s supreme leader, noting that prior to his being anointed as the successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, he was unknown to the vast majority of the North Korean public and brought to the table little to no military or political experience.

“Kim Jong Un’s succession was possible because it was in the interests of the existing elites,” Gray said. “In this respect, North Korea is no different to any other authoritarian country.”

According to Gray, the economic interests of these elites are likely served well by the current regime system and, in the event of Kim Jong Un’s death, “there would be a strong preference for continuity.”

“Who exactly is in charge probably counts less than that those existing interests continue to be served,” he said.

North Korea's Choe Ryong Hae, member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea and first vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission, speaks during the 18th Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Non-aligned Movement in Baku, Azerbaijan, in this undated picture released in October. | KCNA / VIA REUTERS
North Korea’s Choe Ryong Hae, member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and first vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission, speaks during the 18th Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Non-aligned Movement in Baku, Azerbaijan, in this undated picture released in October. | KCNA / VIA REUTERS

The contenders

Still, if Kim were indeed incapacitated or even dead, there are several plausible scenarios that could emerge, including another member of the Kim family taking the reins, the military taking power or a solitary figure from the nation’s elite ascending to lead the country.

One of the most talked about possibilities has been Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, taking over for her brother.

Perhaps his most trusted adviser, she acted as his envoy to South Korea’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018 and has joined him on a flurry of diplomatic trips abroad. Much in the vein of her brother and father, she has also begun issuing fiery political statements in her own name, and was recently tapped to be an alternate member of the politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).

The obstacles to such a scenario, however, would be tremendous.

“The prospects of Kim Yo Jong as a leader … remain questionable given whether the heavily Confucian North Korean society, regime and state would accept a female leader,” said Edward Howell, a lecturer in international relations at Oxford University focusing on North Korea.

Still, said Howell, one possibility would be for her to rule as a figurehead, with other WPK members pulling the strings from the background.

This would allow for elites to maintain a kind of status quo where little would change in the lives of both the elite and the everyday population.

“If there is an option to have a figurehead Kim as a leader, why would the DPRK not go along with that option?” Howell said, using the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Another Kim family member whose name has been bandied about in recent days has been Kim Pyong Il, the half-brother of Kim Jong Un’s father. Kim Pyong Il was essentially banished from the North for decades as its ambassador to several eastern European countries until last year after a falling out with Kim Il Sung that was said to have been orchestrated by Kim Jong Il.

He would be an enticing dark horse for the North’s neighbor and top ally, China, which fears instability on its doorstep, according to Maxwell.

For China, if the status quo cannot be maintained, Maxwell said the next best course of action is to support a new leader who can be drawn under Beijing’s influence — “ideally someone more malleable than the current … leadership.”

“I certainly see them trying to install Kim Pyong Il,” he said.

But any such attempt by China — regardless of Beijing’s claim that Sino-North Korean ties remain “as close as lips and teeth,” the expression used by China’s Mao Zedong to refer to the relationship — could backfire.

Pyongyang has long cast a wary eye on Beijing for fear of becoming overly dependent on China, and retains very little in the way of actual levers of influence over the North and any attempt to influence its politics in such a brazen manner as supporting Kim Pyong Il would be unprecedented.

But China aside, “a bigger problem with Kim Pyong Il is his lack of clout within the Pyongyang circle of elites,” said Howell, noting his nearly three-decade-long absence from the North.

Outside of the Paektu bloodline — though just barely — is Kim Jong Un’s official No. 2, Choe Ryong Hae, a member of the politburo’s Presidium, the ruling party’s top decision-making body, and first vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission, the country’s top governmental body.

The hugely powerful Choe is also related to the Kim family through marriage, with South Korean media reporting that his son wed Kim Yo Jong in 2014.

While some experts have hinted that Choe could take the helm as a possible regent or head of a collective leadership body in the event of Kim Jong Un’s demise, others have been critical of such a scenario.

“I do not see a successor regime run by a military junta or some coalition kind of structure,” said Maxwell. “It will be difficult for a nonblood relative to take power, as the entire propaganda narrative will have to be adjusted.”

King’s College London’s Pacheco Pardo, agreed, saying that without a Kim leading the country, many ordinary North Koreans “would surely have serious questions about why their country remains independent from the more prosperous South.”

Even if military or coalition rule somehow emerged, “there would probably be little buy-in from the general population … given the deification of the Kim family,” he said.

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