Apr 23, 2020

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World and Ramadan Mubarak to our Muslim readers around the world.

  • Most of tonight's 1,638-word (6-minute) edition will be on topics other than coronavirus, though we will get you up to speed at the bottom.
  • Keep the tips and feedback coming, and tell your friends and colleagues to sign up here.
1 big thing: North Korea's missing man

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.
2. Americans' views of China darken dramatically
Reproduced from Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals

Two-thirds of Americans now view China unfavorably, up from 47% two years ago, according to data from Pew.

The big picture: Americans have tended to view China negatively since 2013, but that sentiment has grown dramatically over the past two years. In that time, the proportion of Americans who view China very unfavorably has more than doubled (15% to 33%).

Key findings:

  • The trend is bipartisan, though Republicans (72% unfavorable) are more wary of China than Democrats (62%).
  • 18-29-year-olds are more likely to view China favorably (43%) than 30-49-year-olds (26%) and those older than 50 (21%).
  • Confidence in Xi Jinping plummeted over the last year, with 71% of Americans now having no confidence in him, compared with 50% in 2019.
  • Nine-in-10 Americans now view China as a threat. 62% view China as a major threat, up from 48% in 2018.
  • Concerns with China’s impact on the environment and policies on human rights are on the rise, while economic concerns over jobs and the trade deficit are lower than a decade ago.
  • Most Americans view the U.S. as a bigger economic power than China, and 91% say the world is better off with America as the leading superpower, rather than China (4%).

Worth noting: The polling was conducted from March 3-29, during which time U.S. and Chinese officials sparred about the origins of COVID-19.

Bonus: Press freedom index

Key takeaways from the latest edition of the annual World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders:

  • Best (1-10): Norway, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Switzerland, New Zealand, Portugal.
  • Worst: North Korea (180), Turkmenistan, Eritrea, China, Djibouti, Vietnam, Syria, Iran, Laos, Cuba (171).
  • Improving: Maldives (79), Malaysia (101), Sudan (159).
  • Deteriorating: Comoros (75), Haiti (83), Benin (113).

Other notables: Namibia (23) ranks first in Africa, Bulgaria (111) ranks last in the EU, and the U.S. (45) slots in between Taiwan and Papua New Guinea.

  • Troll armies spreading disinformation are a top concern in Philippines (136), India (142), Russia (149) and Vietnam (175).
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4. The world won't stop for COVID-19

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump's threat Wednesday to "destroy" Iranian boats that harass U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf was a reminder that geopolitical tensions won’t wait until the pandemic is over.

The big picture: Rob Malley, CEO of the International Crisis Group, tells Axios he has two main concerns about potential flashpoints during the COVID crisis.

  1. "Countries could decide that now is a good time to act precisely because the world is distracted, and they think they can get away with it” with limited international pushback.
  2. Leaders who are under pressure over their handling of the coronavirus and its economic ramifications might try to create a “diversion” in hopes the country will “rally around the flag.”

Between the lines: Malley notes that both Trump and Iran's leaders have been under intense scrutiny during the pandemic.

  • “It's worth pondering whether in this case or in others we're going to see leaders trying to change the subject,” he says.

Where things stand: The Pentagon has walked back Trump's tweet slightly, saying he was simply asserting the "right of self-defense."

Go deeper.

5. The strange journey of Mikheil Saakashvili

Guess who's back? Photo: Vladimir Shtanko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Ukraine's deputy prime minister, a former president of Georgia, and an international fugitive walk into a bar...

“Good to see you again, Mr. Saakashvili.”

Between the lines: The joke tells only part of the story of the man tapped this week by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to oversee Ukraine's reform efforts.

The backstory: Mikheil Saakashvili climbed through the ranks of post-Soviet Georgian politics to become justice minister, resigned to protest corruption, led the Rose Revolution of 2003, and served two terms as president of Georgia (2003-2014).

  • He's perhaps best remembered in the West for his role in the 2008 war with Russia.
  • Saakashvili was praised for reforming Georgia but accused of authoritarian tendencies (a diplomat who served in Tbilisi at the time told me it was as though “Saakashvili” and “Georgia” were synonymous).

Saakashvili fled Georgia when the incoming government charged him with abuse of power. But he did not simply wait in the wings, rallying the opposition from afar (he does that too).

  • He emerged in Ukraine — supporting the Maidan Revolution, taking Ukrainian citizenship, and becoming governor of Odessa (2015-2016).
  • He’d flee Ukraine a year later after falling out with then-President Petro Poroshenko.
  • Saakashvili was stripped of Ukrainian citizenship (rendering him stateless), detained and twice expelled from Ukraine before allying himself with the man who defeated Poroshenko in last year’s election.

Now he's back, and set to become deputy prime minister.

State of the outbreak
Expand chart
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals
  • An examination of death rates during the pandemic vs. normal circumstances by the Economist suggests New York City is getting quite an accurate count (COVID deaths account for 98% of excess mortality) and places like Istanbul (40%) and Lombardy (48%) are massively undercounting.
  • With no new COVID cases recorded for six days, Vietnam is emerging as one of the "global success stories," according to a report from Albright Stonebridge Group. Normal business is now resuming in Ho Chi Minh City, which hasn't recorded a new cases in 19 days.
  • China's highest-security virology center is at the center of debate, speculation and misinformation about how, where and when the novel coronavirus emerged, Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reports. Worthy of your time.
  • Chile plans to issue the world's first "immunity passports."

Go deeper: The global experiment of exiting lockdown

6. COVID-19: The view from Montevideo

Montevideo, as seen from a hospital room. Photo: Pablo Porciuncula/AFP via Getty Images

It appears that most of Latin America somehow "surfed" the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, Martin Aguirre, editor-in-chief of Uruguay's El Pais newspaper, emails from Montevideo.

The big picture: "With the exceptions of Ecuador and Panama, most countries are not seeing the numbers of deaths that have become norm in the northern hemisphere," Martin writes.

  • He notes that the situation varies widely from countries like Brazil and Mexico, where leaders have downplayed the threat, to smaller countries like Costa Rica, Chile and Uruguay "that seem to be doing just fine."

"The problem right now seems to be more economic than medical. Most of the countries have huge portions of the population that work informally and don’t have any public social safety net."

  • "People need to go to work to eat, but also hospitals and medical institutions are far less prepared to deal with the virus than in the developed world."
  • "So the big challenge now for governments — after almost six weeks of lockdown in most countries — is to convince people not to resume 'normal' life, while avoiding the social unrest that might come if people don’t have the chance to make a living."

What to watch: "We are waiting on the eventual second wave, with the complications that might come in the winter months, which already bring respiratory diseases and shortages of medical resources."

7. Stories we're watching

Superhero spotting in Bangkok. Photo: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

  1. How to make it to Earth Day 2070
  2. Amid pandemic, China expands control over contested waters
  3. China pledges $30m for WHO
  4. China's "Wolf Warrior diplomacy" comes to Twitter
  5. U.S. may cut intel sharing over homosexuality bans
  6. The uncertain global attempt to save oil
  7. Trump announces green card suspension


“There’s no plan or interagency process underway involving the purchase of Greenland.”
— A State Department official today on the news that the U.S. would provide $12 million in U.S. aid to the island.

Flashback: Trump canceled a meeting with Denmark's prime minister last year when she declined to discuss his proposal to buy Greenland. Somehow, that was only 8 months ago.