Last night, CNN dropped a major storyline that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was in “grave danger” following cardiovascular surgery earlier this month. The CNN article quotes an anonymous U.S. official as saying “that the concerns about Kim’s health are credible but the severity is hard to assess,” and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien telling Fox News that the United States was closely monitoring the situation related to Kim’s health.
A source for Daily NK, a South Korean-based online website, reported that Kim Jong Un went into surgery on April 12, and he was missing from the April 15 celebration of Kim Il Sung’s birthday, which raised speculations as to whether the surgery had been botched or that the North Korean leader had been diagnosed with the coronavirus. The North Korean source for Daily NK told the website that Kim’s heart surgery was related to obesity, overwork, and bad smoking habits.
However, both South Korea and China have disputed the reports, with South Korea’s presidential Blue House spokesman Kang Min-seok stating that there is “nothing to confirm rumours about chairman Kim Jong-un’s health, and no special movement has been detected inside North Korea as of now,” and another South Korean official disputing claims that the North Korean leader was seriously ill at all. An official with the International Liaison Department, an office within the Chinese Communist Party, also disputed the claim that Kim was seriously ill, and the North Korean embassy in Beijing seems to be at peace. If it was not, then that would be a sign that something bad has happened in North Korea.
As Anna Fitfield, author of the book on Kim Jong Un titled The Great Successor, told the Washington Post, “We all need to be extremely careful with any rumor that comes out from North Korea because…it’s just a black hole. It’s impossible, or at least extremely difficult, to verify information that comes out from North Korea.”
This is not the first time that claims of Kim Jong Un being in severe danger have circulated. In 2014, Kim went missing for six weeks before reappearing with a walking cane. It was later reported that he was suffering from either severe gout or arthritis due to his obesity.
With the true status of Kim’s health status unknown, the United States has been preparing for a possible transition of power to the next successor to lead the North Korean regime. According to CNN, top U.S. officials have been in contact with various North Korean experts to discuss contingency plans should there be a transition of power. “The basic assumption is that it would be someone in the family” Robert O’Brien was quoted as saying according to The Guardian.
One likely successor is Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un. Her ascendancy has increased in the last couple of years, as she has gained prominence within the regime and has helped her brother craft his public image for North Korean propaganda purposes. She made waves at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, leading the North Korean delegation and sitting behind Vice President Mike Pence. In March, she made her first public statement, calling South Korea a “frightened dog barking” acting incoherently to “magnify [North Korea’s] distrust, hatred and scorn for the South side as a whole.”
A change in leadership in North Korea now would be very frightening and dangerous. Tensions between the United States and China would increase over what to do about the country, and a lack of credible intelligence coming out of Pyongyang would raise concerns about what the United States would be getting itself into. But, no matter what happens in North Korea, let us all hope that one day that the people of North Korea find freedom, peace, and prosperity; breaking out of the chains of totalitarianism that controls the country today.