When Kim Jong-un went conspicuously missing for a month back in 2014, North Korean state media finally put rumors about the young dictator’s status to bed by announcing he was very much alive, just experiencing some “discomfort.”
Six years later, with Mr. Kim again absent from public view, this time for more than two weeks, there has been no similar pushback from state media in Pyongyang — and the rumor mill is beginning to churn at full tilt.
Is the North Korean leader dead? Or hiding out from COVID-19? Will his sister Kim Yo-jong take power? What about his father’s half-brother Kim Pyong-il? Are Chinese and U.S. officials secretly negotiating over his nuclear weapons while the world waits for an announcement?
Those were a few of the questions that swirled through the weekend absent any official announcement from Pyongyang on the status of the overweight 36-year-old dictator who is a heavy smoker with a family history of heart disease.
U.S. and regional intelligence sources continued Sunday to reject speculative international media reports, including a rising number claiming Mr. Kim is dead. But the theories have continued to mount, with some well-respected Pyongyang watchers weighing in with predictions on what’s ahead for a world without Kim Jong Un.
“Regardless of who assumes power, there are no indications that a successor would pursue different domestic or foreign policies,” Bruce Klingner, a former CIA Korea official now with the Heritage Foundation, wrote in one an analysis posted online.
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David Maxwell, a retired Special Forces colonel and North Korea expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, reflected in comments circulated by email that reports of satellite imagery showing the North Korean dictator’s private train parked at his family’s exclusive Wonsan compound could mean many things.
“This certainly adds to the mystery,” Mr. Maxwell said. “He could be there to hide out from the coronavirus or just sipping cognac and smoking cigars chuckling about how the international community has worked itself into a [tizzy].”
“Or maybe it is there to return his body to Pyongyang,” Mr. Maxwell added.
Speculation that Mr. Kim could be dead or dying was sparked initially from a report last week by the South Korean internet news outlet Daily NK — a publication run mostly by North Korean defectors — that claimed Mr. Kim was getting treatment after undergoing cardiovascular surgery.
CNN took it to new heights by adding the claim that Mr. Kim was in grave danger of dying after a surgery. Like nearly all of the thousands of reports published since, the initial claims cited unnamed sources as having insider info on the notoriously secretive North Korean regime.
U.S. intelligence officials say they have no verifiable information on Mr. Kim’s status other than what might be drawn from the lack of images in North Korean state media showing the young dictator in public more recently than April 11.
High-level South Korean officials say the same thing, noting that unverified rumors have mounted since April 15, following Mr. Kim’s surprising absence from festivities that day celebrating the birthday of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the family’s communist dynasty and dictatorship.
South Korea’s official Yonhap News Agency has reported that Mr. Kim also remained out of sight on April 25 while the North’s tightly controlled state media focused their coverage on the founding anniversary of its armed forces.
But South Korean officials have pushed back at reports claiming Mr. Kim may be dead — including one that circulated in some Japanese and some Hong Kong media over the weekend. A top advisor to South Korean President Moon Jae-in made headlines Sunday by asserting the North Korean dictator is actually “alive and well.
“Our government position is firm,” Moon Chung-in, the advisor told CNN. “Kim Jong Un is alive and well. He has been staying in the Wonsan area since April 13. No suspicious movements have so far been detected.”
The claim fit with some reports that have suggested Mr. Kim is riding out the coronavirus pandemic at his family compound in Wonsan.
U.S. officials have sought to avoid jumping to conclusions. President Trump told reporters last week that his team members just “don’t know” whether Mr. Kim is sick. “I’ve had a very good relationship with him,” Mr. Trump said. “I can only say this, I wish him well.”
Reuters reported that China — North Korea’s closest ally — had sent a team of experts, including several medical professionals, to North Korea on Friday to provide guidance on Mr. Kim’s health condition. The news agency said the Chinese delegation was being led by a senior member of China’s International Liaison Department, the agency that handles relations with their southeast neighbor.
The New York Times followed with a report pointing to the wide variety of rumors circulating in the media, including one “in South Korean messaging apps” claiming Mr. Kim is in a “coma” and that Kim Pyong-il, a half brother of the young dictator’s late father Kim Jong-il, has seized power with the help of pro-Chinese elites in Pyongyang.
Kim Pyong-il was long a North Korean ambassador to nations in Eastern Europe and reportedly returned home to Pyongyang last year. The newspaper said the rumor goes on to claim Mr. Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, has been detained while Beijing is secretly bargaining with Washington over the future of North Korea and its nuclear weapons.
It all comes at an uneasy moment in U.S.-North Korea tensions.
On April 14, just three days after Mr. Kim was last reported to have appeared at a government meeting in Pyongyang, North Korea carried out a barrage of missile tests.
The tests were the latest in a wave of provocations by the North, which set a monthly record for launches in March amid mounting uncertainty and unease over the impact the deadly coronavirus pandemic is having on the isolated nation.
The missile tests have come as denuclearization talks with Washington have remained stalled, and as the Trump administration has struggled to come up with a way forward for what had been one of President Trump’s signature foreign policy initiatives.
Prior to the rumors about Mr. Kim’s health, some analysts expressed concern the North Korean leader was using missile tests to lash out and extend his geopolitical leverage while Washington and other world capitals struggled to address the coronavirus crisis.
If it is found to be true that Mr. Kim is now actually dead or dying, analysts say the implications for U.S.-North Korea relations could be vast.
Frank Aum, a former U.S. negotiator with the North Koreans now with the U.S. Institute of Peace, told The Washington Times last week that speculation is fueled by a “lack of clarity about the line of succession” in the regime should Mr. Kim die suddenly.
“Right now there really isn’t a clear successor,” said Mr. Aum, who suggested the most likely candidate may be Mr. Kim’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong.
“It wouldn’t be unreasonable for that to happen based on her knowledge of how the government works and her having been by Kim Jong Un’s side for most major events, including a lot of the summits between Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in as well as with President Trump,” Mr. Aum said.
At the height of Mr. Trump’s diplomatic push toward North Korea last year, sources close to the White House described Kim Yo-jong as the “Kim whisperer,” because she was believed to be among the only North Korean elites truly trusted by the young dictator.
One source claimed Kim Yo-jong had been quietly pushing her brother at the time to embrace economic opening and denuclearization.
Kim Yo-jong is generally regarded to be one of the few other North Korean elites with a Western education, and it is believed she and her brother have a special relationship based on the isolated years they shared together as children, when they both were sent to Switzerland for studies during the late-1990s.
• Lauren Meier contributed to this report.