Kim Jong-un, it seems, is back. The President of North Korea appeared in photos published on Friday, May 1st, by a state-owned newspaper as he cut the ribbon on a new fertilizer manufacturing plant. The country’s supreme leader had been out of the public eye for weeks as rumors swirled about his health and potential death. Today, let’s dissect the rumors that went around during Kim’s disappearance and examine what the global reaction has been to their general dissolution. Finally, let’s consider some perspectives on what the next North Korean transition of power might look like and what US policy on Kim’s death, whenever it comes, ought to be.
Kim’s absence from media prominence first caught Korea-watchers’ eye in mid-April. His last appearance took place on April 12th, but just three days later, he was conspicuously absent from the ceremony for North Korea’s most important holiday: the Day of the Sun, or the birthday of Kim Il-sung, Kim’s grandfather and North Korea’s founder and first Supreme Leader.
Concerns heightened when Daily NK, a South Korea-based periodical that traffics in intelligence from the North, reported that Kim had undergone emergency cardiovascular surgery and was recovering at a countryside villa.
Later that week, Japanese magazine Shukan Gendai claimed that Kim’s operation was the result of a heart attack, and Kim had fallen into a vegetative state following complications of the procedure and the delayed arrival of Chinese doctors whose help had been requested.
Reuters confirmed in late April that China had dispatched doctors to North Korea to assist in Kim’s recovery. Additionally, a report from Yonhap, another South Korean news agency, claimed a prominent North Korean defector was “99% certain” that Kim had died and that the state would announce a transition of power imminently.
Although President Trump never indicated knowledge of Kim’s specific health status, he wished Kim well at a coronavirus press briefing on April 23rd. Trump stated that he hoped reports of Kim’s demise had been exaggerated.
Experts on North Korean policy refused to make any definite judgments, but they claimed that Kim’s reported health issues were certainly plausible. Mintaro Oba, a former official with the Department of State, told the Wall Street Journal that Kim’s obesity, chain-smoking, and alcohol use have all been a matter of concern for the intelligence community. Still, the possibility remained that all the speculation would amount to something much more minor. Robert Carlin, a former US intelligence official, simply claimed “he could be trying to get out from under the shadow of his father and grandfather” by not appearing at the Day of the Sun events.
All of this brings us to today. North Korean media published photos and video footage of Kim celebrating the opening of a fertilizer plant in Suncheon on May 1st. No concerns about the authenticity of this content have been raised among the North Korea policy community. The footage was broadcast domestically as well as abroad, lending it greater authority. (Here’s a short video from the Times on how the US gets its intelligence on Kim).
Analysts collectively breathed a sigh of relief. Instability in the Korean regime is never a positive sign, especially given the cloistered nature of its central government. The US relies on South Korea for much of its intelligence, and as we’ve seen in the last three weeks, the time it takes for reliable news to trickle out to global media is alarmingly long. When Kim Il-sung died in 1994, it took over 48 hours for the rest of the world to receive confirmation. Consequently, the US, South Korea, and Japan will likely have little influence over who becomes the next Supreme Leader and how successful they would be at consolidating power and reimplementing Kim Jong-un’s aggressive nuclear agenda.
China, an important geopolitical ally of the Kim family, also relies on internal stability in North Korea. Credible reports of a Supreme Leader’s demise, as well as tacit hints from the government confirming such suspicions, could send a wave of refugees to North Korea’s northern border. The Council on Foreign Relations explained last summer that China remains invested in North Korea’s continued existence as a state since it provides a buffer zone between the 29,000 US troops stationed in South Korea and China’s Liaoning and Jilin provinces.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a fellow at the Cato Institute, wrote midway through April that the speculation over Kim’s disappearance could serve as motivation to change American policy on the Korean peninsula. Instead of pushing a hardline sanction policy, Carpenter argues, the US ought to lift some of its trade restrictions in exchange for the ability to open consulates within the country. This would improve the US’s ability to gather reliable intelligence on the Kim family and internal power struggles. However, it would require a serious recalibration of America’s stance on nuclearization, which critics claim will never occur.
If North Korea were to engage in a transition of power, there isn’t much historical precedent to predict how it might go. The Kim family’s hold on power is vested entirely in the quasi-religious creation myth of the North Korean state (remember Day of the Sun?). Kim Il-sung, according to this narrative, is a demi-godlike figure, and his cult of personality has been both perpetuated and passed down with his lineage. When Kim Il-sung died, his son Kim Jong-Il was already an experienced propagandist and statesman, and he had been preparing to assume power for years. In the late 2000s, after Kim Jong-Il experienced a stroke and was briefly incapacitated, his regime accelerated plans to consolidate power and legitimacy around Kim Jong-un. Though observers initially described Kim, then in his late 20s, as weak and unready, there was nonetheless no uncertainty about whether or not he would be his father’s successor.
Now, though, Kim Jong-Un has no clear heir. His younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, is his closest living kin and has become one of Kim’s most trusted advisers. Her most notable (known) political contribution has been the process of personal rapprochement between Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump. The stalemate at last year’s denuclearization talks was, to some observers, a symbol of her struggle to outrank Kim Jong-un’s other advisers. Moreover, skeptics of her potential claim to power cite North Korea’s extreme patriarchal culture, which has only been fortified by the Kim family’s male-based cult of personality, as a major barrier.
In either case, news of Kim Jong-un’s reemergence has garnered a consensus of positive reactions. With concerns about stability and the coronavirus distracting foreign ministries everywhere, now is likely not an optimal time for a potentially tumultuous transition of power.
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