What’s going on with Kim Jong Un? Is he sick? Worried about Covid-19? Consumed by an economic crisis? Battling internal threats?
Perhaps the North Korean leader is biding his time until the US presidential election? Or maybe he’s playing the same game of threats, reconciliation and retreat that has kept his family in charge of the secretive state since the 1940s?
All those scenarios have been floated to explain months of surprises and intrigue from Pyongyang, including stubborn — but so-far-unsubstantiated — rumors that the 36-year-old leader is unwell. The developments have underscored how little the world knows about North Korea, and left even many professional observers questioning how they go about interpreting Kim’s actions.
“We need to check our assumptions about the leadership,” said Soo Kim, a Rand Corp. policy analyst who previously worked at the Central Intelligence Agency. “Perhaps we are imposing our own expectations and habitual knowledge about the North Korean regime on the current situation. And if these expectations are false, then we risk drawing faulty or erroneous conclusions about the regime.”
Indeed, Kim is behaving in ways that have defied expectations. After making economic development his central policy focus in 2018, he acknowledged last week that people’s living standards have “not been improved remarkably.” He has attended less than a third of the number of public events as he had at this time in 2019 and earlier this year missed birthday celebrations for his late grandfather, state founder Kim Il Sung.
After promising to unveil a “new strategic weapon” and carrying out a record number of ballistic missile launches last year, North Korea has dramatically scaled back weapon tests in 2020. He’s even given his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, a more prominent role in relations with the US and South Korea, an unprecedented delegation of power that risks elevating a potential rival from the family’s so-called Mount Paektu bloodline.
Kim Yo Jong proved her hard-line credentials in June by delivering a stern rebuke to Seoul before North Korea blew up a $15 million liaison office South Korean President Moon Jae-in helped establish on the northern side of the border in 2018. Since then, North Korea has been unusually quiet, foregoing even its standard criticism of US-South Korean military drills that started this month.
Illustrating the struggle to read the signals, South Korean lawmakers said after a briefing by spy agency officials last week that Kim Jong Un had delegated some authority to his sister to relieve “stress,” adding that she was running “every aspect” of state affairs. The lawmakers held another briefing shortly after to play down their remarks, saying they were only sharing the spy agency’s interpretation.
State media released what appeared to be fresh images of Kim Wednesday, publishing photos of him leading a Politburo meeting, dressed in summer white. Still, the rumors about his health have persisted, due in part to North Korea’s long history of manipulating state media reports for political purposes.
The confusion was reminiscent of an episode in April after the Seoul-based news site Daily NK reported that Kim had undergone a “cardiovascular surgical procedure,” potentially explaining his absence from events honoring his grandfather. Subsequent reports that Kim was dead or incapacitated followed, only for him to turn up at a May 1 fertilizer plant visit looking healthy, if still overweight.
“Kim Jong Un’s long absences have been unusual in the context of his general public activities in North Korea,” said Ankit Panda, a Stanton senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This has obviously led to some very poorly reasoned and supported rumors about his health. But it simply appears that the leader is taking precaution — as so many of us are — during an unprecedented global pandemic.”
North Korea’s stability is not only a concern for its immediate neighbors, but the wider world since a turbulent leadership change would raise new questions about who controls a nuclear bomb stockpile that could grow to 100 warheads by year end. No matter who’s in charge, North Korean leaders have strong incentives to preserve the regime and Kim’s strategy of seeking sanctions relief from US President Donald Trump by building a more dangerous nuclear arsenal.
Greater insight may come around Oct. 10, when the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea is expected to celebrate its 75th anniversary. Footage from those events, which analysis of satellite photos suggests will probably include the regime’s first military parade since 2018, should provide a fresh chance to evaluate Kim’s strategy and his relationship with top officials including his sister.
As usual, North Korea’s propaganda machine has said nothing about Kim’s health or succession plans. The coronavirus has further cut the flow of intelligence out of the country, with North Korea slashing traffic across the Chinese border and curbing movements of diplomats posted in Pyongyang.
Some of the few foreign diplomats and non-governmental organization workers who live in Pyongyang are leaving, with Swedish embassy staff among the latest to depart. Kim told a party meeting earlier this month that he wouldn’t accept international handouts due to worries of spreading the virus.
Kim may also be preoccupied with the economic damage wrought by US sanctions and severe flooding, as well as the pandemic. North Korea is on track for its biggest contraction since the 1990s, when Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, faced a devastating famine, according to Fitch Solutions.
“The economic struggle is already damaging Kim’s authority,” said Boo Seung-chan, a former adviser to South Korea’s defense minister who’s now an adjunct professor at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. “Kim may need to share that authority with expert groups to better handle the crisis while minimizing damage to himself.”
Economic issues have certainly dominated Kim’s recent public statements, including his decision earlier this month to replace former Premier Kim Jae Ryong after little more than a year on the job. He also announced plans to hold the first Workers’ Party congress in five years in January to update the country’s national development blueprint.
The timing of the party congress could provide Kim a convenient platform to deliver a fresh message to the US before the next presidential inauguration on Jan. 20. While it’s unclear whether Trump can break the stalemate with North Korea if he wins a second term, Democratic nominee Joe Biden has signaled a different approach, criticizing the president’s emphasis on a personal rapport with Kim.
Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former analyst for the US government specializing in North Korea, noted that Kim Yo Jong alluded to concern about a change in US leadership in an earlier statement about the need for good relations for the two countries, as well as their leaders.
“I am surprised that he has not started taking steps to escalate tensions in the lead-up to showing off the ‘new strategic weapon,’” Lee said. “Part of this could be that Pyongyang is weighing its options before the US presidential election, but the main reason seems to be that it remains fettered by domestic issues.”