WASHINGTON, October 8, 2014 — The incredible secrecy surrounding almost every aspect of life in North Korea often spawns an over-active rumor mill. The latest gossip centers on the Great Leader himself and whether he is still in charge of the notoriously closed country.
The 31-yearold Kim, who quickly solidified his power in North Korea after taking over in December 2011, has not been seen in public in 34 days, fueling speculation that he is ill or that he has been deposed in a palace coup.
In his first three years in power, Kim worked to sideline potential adversaries, antagonize the West, and even launched a nuclear test to assert North Korea’s importance globally. He made massive public appearances, recorded by state media kissing babies, attending rallies and parades, and even watching basketball with Dennis Rodman.
Questions about the fate of Kim began swirling on September 25, when he failed to attend a parliamentary meeting, and reached a fevered pitch last weekend. The latest round of gossip started after Hwang Pyong So, who took over as second-in-command after Jang’s purge, paid a surprise visit to South Korea with a delegation to watch the closing ceremonies of the Asian Games.
Gossip mongers postulated that the visit suggests Hwang is now in control, and is seeking warmer ties with South Korea, countering Kim’s bellicose rhetoric toward the South. Hwang was named Vice Chairman, National Defense Commission at the last meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly, and is Director of the General Political bureau of the Korean People’s Army.
Hysteria over Kim crescendoed after South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae asked after the health of Kim, who state media said was suffering “discomfort.” North Korean official Kim Yang Gon responded, “There is nothing wrong with the health of Secretary Kim.”
Kim’s maneuvering could have alienated North Korea’s powerful military, the only group capable of challenging Kim. The military likely opposed the massive turmoil Kim caused in his very short term in his effort to consolidate control. He changed his army chief three times in his first three years, and replaced approximately 110 of the top 218 military and government officials. He also purged his second-in-command, Jang Song Taek, who was also his uncle. Jang was not only a powerful member of the ruling dynasty, but also well-respected by the military. He was also the primary conduit between North Korea and China, and his execution caused tensions between the two countries.
After the purge of Jeng, there were subtle signs of rivalry and conflict inside the government, but those appeared to have faded as Kim retained complete control.
Despite the media panic, however, there are other indications that Kim remains in control. The delegation to South Korea could have been an effort by Kim to thaw difficult relations and to help reduce the country’s isolation.
Kim may be recovering from some type of illness, which limits his ability to appear in public. It is highly unlikely Kim would appear publicly if he was ill, fearing it would make him appear weak. Both his father and grandfather curtailed public appearances when they were not well, and stayed out of the public completely when they were dying.
In his last public appearance on September 3, Kim was limping, and state media reported he was “in an uncomfortable physical condition.” Medical analysts speculate Kim could have gout or diabetes, and that he could suffer from heart problems. His father had received treatment for “cardiac and cerebrovascular disease” and died of a heart attack in 2011. Kim is approximately 5’9” tall, although many analysts believe he is shorter, and weighs approximately 280 pounds, which would likely complicate his health issues.
Instability in North Korea raises significant concerns, because of North Koreas nuclear arsenal, ballistic missiles, and large military forces. Any power struggle could prompt North Korea to launch attacks to demonstrate the strength of whoever is now in power.
The risk is particularly great if Kim retains power but believes his position is threatened. He has already launched missile tests and a nuclear test, and has displayed irrational and even bizarre behavior since taking office. If he feels threatened by Hwang, Kim will almost certainly purge him from power. Kim is ruthless and unpredictable, and has shown no tolerance for dissent.
There so far is little indication of major trouble in North Korea or that the situation is completely unraveling. There have been no troop movements or military maneuvers that would suggest major problems.
The next major indication of the status of Kim will come on October 10, at the celebration of the founding of the Workers’ Party. If Kim is absent, it will send a strong signal that he is either extremely ill or that he is not longer truly in power. Analysts will also watch the seating arrangement at the celebration, noting who is sitting in the position of honor and who is now sidelined.
Even after October 10, however, the situation is unlikely to become completely clear. One intelligence analyst specializing in North Korea noted, “In North Korea, nothing is ever transparent, nothing is ever completely clear. The statement ‘clear as mud?’ That’s North Korea. About as clear as mud.”