As one of the most recluse and mysterious countries in the world, North Korea isn’t exactly rushing a press release to every journalist on leader Kim Jong-un’s health. Nevertheless, a report from earlier this week from United States intelligence committees suggested that the leader might be in grave danger after he failed to appear at a celebration honoring his late grandfather Kim Il-sung, the founder of the country. As one of the most important holidays in North Korea, Kim Jong-un’s absence from the celebration was quickly speculated as signaling the leaders’ potential demise.
What we know
A country rife with secrecy that feeds its people with propaganda on a regular basis, North Korea seldom misses an opportunity to show both the world and its people that its leader is in perfect condition. So when Kim Jong-un failed to appear at a major event commemorating the Day of the Sun that honored his grandfather on April 15th, it raised flags around the world.
Upon the revelation that Kim Jong-un was absent from the celebration, intelligence agencies scrambled to find out why. When a South Korean website dedicated to releasing news out of the reclusive country to the north published an article claiming that Kim Jon-un had recently undergone heart surgery, many assumed the leader was either recovering or in grave condition.
We do know that the leader’s health is far from perfect. Reports over the last couple of years have discussed, at length, Kim Jong-un’s obesity and smoking habits that likely caused his reported gout and heart problems. A heart surgery for a leader with known, ongoing health problems would not be out of the question. State-run media has been largely silent on whether or not the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains in good health—or even whether or not the leader recently underwent surgery, for that matter.
Could he have contracted coronavirus?
Much of the speculation surrounding Kim Jong-un’s health has focused on his existing health problems, but the fact that he’s a smoker and suffers from existing heart problems and health conditions puts him at greater risk of contracting a potentially fatal bout of the COVID-19 virus.
North Korea has finally confirmed that it’s faced hardship over the virus since it became a problem back in January, but the country famous for its secrecy is, unsurprisingly, being vague about how the virus has impacted it officially.
The low rate of travel in and out of North Korea could mean that it has been able to control its case numbers fairly well despite major outbreaks in neighboring countries. But that does not rule out speculation that Kim Jong-un’s absence from the Day of the Sun festivities could be because he’s taking precautionary measures to avoid infection. If this were the case, it might conflict with the image of Kim Jong-un in the eyes of the North Korean people, which portrays the Kim family as heroic leaders with their own individual personality cults, explaining the silence from North Korean media outlets.
Regardless of why the leader may have needed medical treatment, signs that the country flew in a professional to help Kim Jong-un recover are scant. The country’s complete lockdown over the coronavirus means that no flights are going in or out at the moment, meaning that records of a special flight to charter a medical professional would have stood out had it happened at all.
Even then, so few people regularly travel to the country that there are only a couple of places that commercial flights are available on a regular day, pandemic aside. Very few airlines even fly through North Korean airspace enroute to other parts of the world, meaning that any flights going into the area at all would likely stand out on a radar.
So what happens if he is dead?
International media outlets misreported the deaths of both Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, and grandfather Kim Il-sung in 1986 and 2011, respectively. Both leaders, having passed away before or after reports of their deaths made their way into international news outlets, sparked major concern for what would come for the future of the reclusive country. In 2011, fears that the erratic and unpredictable Kim Jong-un would be more of a threat than his father proved to be somewhat true.
Kim Jong-un’s speculated health problems and death in the media are no different than the country’s previous two leaders. Should Kim Jong-un be in grave danger, or rendered unable to lead the country, plans for his sister Kim Yo-jong to take over are speculated to be in effect. Kim Yo-jong, who might not be technically trained to lead a country, has already advised on state affairs in the past and appears to be one of the few members of the surviving Kim family to avoid the wrath of Kim Jong-un.
In 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of Kim Jong-il was assassinated at the Kuala Lumpur airport after being injected with a viral nerve agent while reading departure signs in one of the airport’s common areas. Speculation quickly arose that Kim Jong-nam was murdered by his younger brother, Kim Jong-un, after it was discovered that he was acting as a CIA informant.
It’s obvious that some member of the Kim family would be poised to take over for Kim Jong-un should he be unable to act as a leader. How she would run the country, though, remains unclear. After Kim Yo-jong became a pivotal figure in the first meeting of the North and South Korean leaders for the first time since 1953, at the end of the Korean War.