Apr 23, 2020 - World

What to make of Kim Jong-un's disappearance

Have you seen this man? Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images

Kim Jong-un’s status remains a mystery after a week of rumors about the North Korean dictator’s health and chatter in Washington about succession.

Why it matters: “This should be a huge reminder of how much regional stability rests on this one leader,” says Jung Pak, a former CIA officer and author of the forthcoming book “Becoming Kim Jong-un.”

  • While there are signs that “something is up” in North Korea, she says, it could be weeks before the world has any answers.

The backstory: The rumors began after Kim missed North Korea’s most important annual ceremony marking the birthday of his grandfather and the regime’s founder, Kim Il-sung.

  • Then came a single-sourced story from Seoul-based site Daily NK, claiming Kim had heart surgery on April 12 and was recovering at a villa.
  • CNN followed up by reporting the U.S. was “monitoring intelligence that suggests... [Kim] is in grave danger” following surgery.
  • National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said the White House was "keeping a close eye" on the reports, but both South Korea and China expressed skepticism and North Korean state media has ignored the rumors.

Between the lines: The fact remains that if Kim really were ill, we likely wouldn’t know unless the regime wanted us to.

  • Before the announcement that Kim Jong-il had died in 2011, Pak says, “it looked on the surface like things were fine” — even to the CIA.
  • Kim Jong-un himself disappeared for over a month in 2014 before returning with a cane.
  • It’s unlikely that China and South Korea have knowledge of Kim’s current health status either, Pak says.

The big picture: The cult of secrecy is not intended only for the outside world, she says.

  • “The regime has been working on this for decades, building multiple overlapping mechanisms to ensure that it’s the Kim family in control and that the top leader controls what the people and the outside world see.”
  • “It’s a resilient regime, in that people are just going to go about and do their business. They wouldn’t necessarily know that anything is wrong with the leader or anything in the top levels of the government,” she says.

What to watch: The regime’s resilience would be facing a severe test now, regardless of Kim’s health.

  • Pak says there are signs of severe economic strain and reports of panic-buying and paranoia in Pyongyang due to coronavirus.
  • It’s a “combustible mix,” but she’s not expecting an implosion.

The bottom line: While it’s far too early to draw any conclusions about Kim’s condition, speculation is nonetheless swirling about who might succeed him.

  • Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, is an oft-mentioned possibility due to her highly visible role (by North Korean standards) and the importance of continuing the Kim bloodline.
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