Rumors continue to swirl about the health of despotic North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. As the uncertainty drags on, a communist regime with a nuclear arsenal could be in the midst of a leadership vacuum.
On April 15, the 36-year old Supreme Leader of the dubiously named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) failed to appear at the nation’s biggest holiday celebration – the anniversary of his grandfather’s birth. The late Kim Il Sung is considered the nation’s founding father, and his birthday is akin to Independence Day in the U.S. The younger Kim has traditionally been front and center for all the festivities.
Five days later, CNN reported that Kim was in “grave danger” following a cardiovascular procedure, and cited U.S. Intelligence sources who were said to be monitoring reports of Kim’s deteriorating condition. That same evening, an MSNBC reporter tweeted that Kim was brain-dead, but deleted the tweet moments later. In the days since, reports have ranged the spectrum of Kim’s death from a heart attack, a surgeon’s unsteady hand or the coronavirus; to the leader being in a “vegetative state,” recovering from surgery or being completely healthy.
In practically any other country, a leader’s health status would not remain secret for so long. Most other leaders would make an appearance, if they were healthy. If they were incapacitated or dead, their succession plans would kick in to avoid an absence of leadership and loss of stability in their government. In many nations, the press or the people would demand an answer. That is not the case in North Korea, where the state controls the media and the government is notoriously protective and secretive.
It’s worth noting that Kim is not a portrait of good health. Although young, he is obese, a multi-pack-a-day smoker, heavy drinker and enjoys a diet primarily consisting of fatty meat and cheese. Both his father and grandfather died of heart attacks, though they both lived decades past their thirties.
In the last four days, a Hong Kong media outlet pronounced Kim dead and a Japanese magazine reported he was in a vegetative state. South Korean officials said they know of his whereabouts and President Donald Trump said Monday said that he knows how Kim is doing and that the American people should find out “in the not too distant future.” Trump also said he wished the dictator well. So any assumption at this point is as good as any other. My interpretation from summing up all these reports and attempting to read between the blurred lines, is that Kim is alive, but not currently – and maybe not ever again – capable of running the country. Trump’s words, in particular, seem to indicate that something notable is to be revealed at some point. By “wishing him well,” Trump seemed to indicate Kim is alive, but apparently in need of such well wishes.
So who takes over if the portly tyrant is unable to resume his role as leader? Kim had his half-brother assassinated in 2017. His sister, Kim Yo Jong, has been projected as a possible replacement. She drew praise for her outgoing personality and camera-friendliness at the 2018 Winter Olympics in neighboring South Korea. A female leader would be new for the DPRK, but she’s an insider, and a loyal family member. More recently, Kim’s uncle, Kim Pyong Il, has been a target of speculation. He is the half-brother of the late Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father who died in 2011. In either case, there is hope of a more open and less turbulent approach to the international community.
For now, North Korea will go on stalling and withholding. The media will go on speculating. The world will go on watching and waiting. For all we know, Kim Jong Un is watching too, with a big smile on his face.