North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has become a visible global presence over the last few years. But in the last week, he’s completely disappeared from public view — and rumors have started to swirl that he may be seriously ill, or even dead.
On April 15, Kim didn’t appear at a celebration commemorating North Korea’s most important holiday, which honors the founder of the country, Kim’s late grandfather Kim Il Sung. State-run media oddly hasn’t published any photos of a recent weapons test, which typically show the leader watching in approval. And official statements from the country have curiously lacked any direct comments from Kim himself.
All of this has led to rampant media speculation that the 36-year-old Kim is recovering from major surgery, or gravely ill, or dead, and a flurry of activity by US intelligence to figure out what, if anything, is really going on.
Meanwhile, North Korean media outlets have kept mum about the swirling rumors and continue to act as if life in the Hermit Kingdom is proceeding as usual. Even as they publish old (or undated) statements from Kim about the economy and other topics, the gist is that there’s nothing to see here and everything is fine.
That could be true. Kim has disappeared for weeks before, only to show up in public as if nothing had happened. The coronavirus has also impacted the country, and the dictator may be taking precautions to avoid infection. Plus, North Korea’s culture of secrecy means rumors can run rampant regardless of how farfetched they may be.
But Kim is known to be in poor health; he’s obese, he’s a cigarette smoker, and he’s believed to have severe gout.
In my book “The Great Successor,” I wrote that Kim Jong Un’s biggest risk factor was his obvious poor health — and in particular the risk of cardiac problems.
Kim Jong Un is five feet, seven inches tall, and weighs about three hundred pounds = BMI of 45, or “extremely obese” pic.twitter.com/04EsZfuues
— Anna Fifield (@annafifield) April 21, 2020
So when a South Korean tabloid run by North Korean defectors insinuated Kim’s absenteeism might be because of post-surgery complications, the plausibility helped make it a global story.
“The possibility that he’s sick in some way is something we have to keep in mind,” Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official who worked on North Korea, told me.
It’s important to note that no country — including the two Koreas, China, or the US — has officially confirmed the status of the dictator’s health one way or the other.
Still, it’s worth understanding how the speculation started, what we do and don’t know, and what an incapacitated (or worse) Kim would mean for North Korea and the world.
How rumors of Kim Jong Un’s sickness got started
April 15 is an important day in North Korea. It’s the birthday of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s revered founder and grandfather of Kim Jong Un.
Every year, the country stops to honor the elder Kim during the “Day of the Sun”, as he’s viewed by many in the country as a deity. He’s also an incredibly important figure in the younger Kim’s reign, as he has tried to emulate his grandfather (to the point of even dressing like him) as a way of legitimizing his rule.
That’s why Kim’s absence at the celebration raised so many eyebrows.
“For Kim Jong Un not visiting the Kumsusan Palace on April 15 is all but unthinkable in North Korea. It’s the closest thing to blasphemy in the North,” Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea expert at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, told the New York Times.
It was also odd that, just the day before, North Korea had conducted several missile tests. That in itself isn’t unusual, as the regime often conducts such tests around major holidays or important political events (South Korea’s parliamentary elections were also being held the next day).
It was strange, though, that North Korean media was absolutely silent about the tests. Normally, within just a few hours of such tests, North Korean state-run media publishes photos of the test that show Kim smiling approvingly at the explosions.
But the rumors that something funky was going on intensified on Monday (April 20), when a South Korean news outlet run by North Korean defectors published a story — citing “multiple sources” — saying that Kim had recently undergone heart surgery and was recuperating “at a villa outside of Pyongyang.”
The South Korean outlet later ran a correction explaining that, actually, their report was based on a single (unnamed) source inside North Korea — not “multiple sources.”
But the international news service Reuters still picked up the story, citing the tabloid’s report.
And then CNN upped the ante, publishing a story that cited an unnamed US official saying that Kim was in “grave danger” following the surgery. CNN later updated the story to include additional information from other anonymous US officials saying the US was “closely monitoring” intelligence reports about Kim’s health.
It’s unclear what CNN’s sources meant by “monitoring” intelligence reports. It could mean the US has actual information about Kim’s health, or it could simply mean spies were reading the same news stories everyone else was.
Either way, experts say that the CNN story is what turned a small rumor into a global obsession.
Kim Jong Un’s health condition is deteriorating rapidly, from Daily NK to Reuters to CNN to my entire Twitter feed.
— John Delury (@JohnDelury) April 21, 2020
In an effort to confirm the reports, I called officials in the US and South Korea. White House and State Department staff said the only information they had was from the news, and leaders in South Korea didn’t respond with any sense of alarm.
My sources in South Korea are…let’s say “unmoved”…by rumors of Kim Jong Un’s death.
So far, they don’t seem to be buying anything. Definitely waiting for something concrete.
— Alex Ward (@AlexWardVox) April 21, 2020
That Monday night, South Korean officials repeatedly played down the reports of Kim’s health complications, as did some in the Chinese government. Then on Tuesday, President Donald Trump acknowledged the US had no reliable information on the state of the North Korean leader’s health.
“I just hope he’s doing fine,” Trump said during a White House news conference. “I’ve had a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un. And I’d like to see him do well. We’ll see how he does. We don’t know if the reports are true.”
As of Thursday, there remains no official confirmation from inside North Korea or anywhere else that something is wrong with Kim. But that doesn’t mean the world is just going to wait around to find out.
Why the US needs to know about Kim’s health
“Kim Jong Un’s health status is difficult to report on and corroborate because of the regime’s information environment and the sensitivity of such close-hold information about the top leader,” she wrote. “Reliability of the info depends on access, while corroboration would boost confidence level of an assessment. So having one source doesn’t mean that we should ignore it but it should be weighed with what we know and appropriately caveated.”
South Korea and China “downplaying of the reports does not mean that they have more access to Kim,” she continued. “Often they too are scrambling for info.”
The US is scrambling, too. Two anonymous US intelligence officials told Newsweek on Tuesday that America has no evidence that Kim is in grave danger, though one said that analysts are “continuing to monitor reports from regional partners and Korean press.”
But it looks like US intelligence is doing more than just reading reports: Vice on Thursday reported that US surveillance planes have been flying over North Korea to try to suss out what’s going on with Kim. It’s unclear what the aircraft might even be able to find, but some experts believe it’s a purposefully public move to pressure Pyongyang into offering up information about Kim’s status.
There are also some signs of trouble inside North Korea. According to North Korea-focused website NK News, there’s been a lot of “panic buying” at Pyongyang’s grocery stores. Vegetables, flour, and sugar are flying off the shelves, a source told the outlet. Whether or not that’s connected to the Kim rumors is unclear. It’s just as possible that North Koreans are stocking up on food after the regime on Monday announced “tougher state emergency anti-epidemic steps” to combat the coronavirus.
It makes sense, then, that the US would want to know exactly what’s going on instead of just relying on media speculation.
First, it’s just generally a good idea for America to have the most up-to-date information on other countries and their leaders — not just their policies and palace intrigue, but also their state of being. Having that intelligence helps the US government prepare to make decisions today and into the future.
Second, and relatedly, the state of Kim’s health has significant implications for America.
If Kim is healthy but just wants to stay out of sight, it could mean all sorts of things — maybe he’s hunkering down to avoid getting the coronavirus, or perhaps he’s planning some kind of dramatic move. It was shortly after Kim’s long 2014 absence that North Korea launched the massive cyberattack against Sony Pictures for producing the comedy film The Interview, which depicted a CIA plot to kill Kim.
“I give the Kim regime maximum respect, the benefit of doubt. When the top leader is out of public for an extended period, I assume he’s up to serious planning or cramming for the next strategic move instead of bed-ridden or partying all night every night,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a North Korea expert at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
If Kim is gravely ill, that’s also really, really important for the US to know, as it immediately raises the question of who exactly is running the country right now.
“What if he is technically ‘alive’ or there is litigation amongst potential successors as for whether he is alive or dead? Who can legally issue orders? What if there are contravening orders?” said Vipin Narang, an expert on North Korea’s nuclear program.
And if it turns out Kim is dead, then there would likely be a succession crisis in the country.
Kim Yo Jong, the supreme leader’s sister, is the current odds-on favorite to take over. She’s recently taken on a more prominent role in the country, even putting out her own statements and meeting foreign leaders face to face.
But Sheena Greitens, a North Korea expert at the University of Missouri, noted in the Washington Post on Wednesday, is more skeptical of this possibility. “Female inheritance in modern dictatorships is essentially unheard of, and North Korea watchers debate whether and how North Korea’s political culture might adapt to a female ruler,” she wrote.
Another possibility, according to the Victoria University of Wellington’s Van Jackson, is that the country’s armed forces take over. “That’s generally bad” for the US, he told me, especially because North Korea’s military “tends to be the most predictably hawkish toward the US.”
To consolidate power and legitimacy, there’s a chance the ruling general would take provocative actions, such as launching a missile closer to the US than ever before. At that point, any remaining goodwill between Pyongyang and Washington would wither away.
Again, all of this is complete speculation. Kim could be just fine, smoking a cigarette in one of his palaces right now, biding his time before he shows his face in public again.
In fact, this isn’t even the first time this sort of thing has happened. In 2014, Kim wasn’t seen in public for five weeks, during which he missed a major holiday commemorating the founding of the ruling party. At the time, speculation about why he was absent ranged from him nursing a hangover, suffering from gout, or having been overthrown in a coup.
And earlier this year, as the coronavirus raged in China and South Korea, the dictator kept inside for three weeks before showing up in February to honor his late father Kim Jong Il’s birthday.
But he could also be so ill that the future of his country — and the future of US policy toward it — are in serious flux. After all, in 2011, it took two days before North Korean officials finally announced that Kim Jong Il had died.
That’s why US and world officials want to confirm or dispel the rumors for themselves. Certainty in tumultuous times is helpful, and there’s little more troubling than a rogue nuclear state without someone in charge.