What is happening in North Korea?

Questions about the extent of the COVID-19 epidemic there are now taking second-stage to rumors about the health of Kim Jong-un.

Every country in the world right now is concerned what every other country is doing about COVID-19. For the last two months, North Korea has claimed zero cases in their country, to the incredulity of most observers. But with such a fast-spreading disease, the world is understandably impatient to know more. Now the mystery is compounded further by the possible disappearance of Kim Jong-un, the country’s current ruler. Rumors swirl that he is dead or somehow medically incapacitated.

“What is happening in North Korea” is a question that is always being asked because it is always difficult to answer. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is famously opaque and they like it that way. There is no free press there, no freedom of movement, and no free elections (although, they do technically ‘vote’ in North Korea), so gathering accurate information on what the North’s people and leaders are doing is frustrating, at best.

What happens in North Korea is actually of legitimate interest to much of the world. For one, concerns about the success of their viral containment strategies is of direct importance to China – who shares a, until recently, very porous 880 mile border with the North – and, in a globalized world, also important to most other nations as well.

In addition, the possibly precarious health of the leader of an unstable nuclear power with no clear successor is definitely keeping millions of people in South Korea, Japan, and China awake this week. However much any number of military leaders everywhere from Moscow to DC to Beijing may want the Kim’s gone nobody wants chaos in the DPRK.

So what do we know?

They probably have corona virus but may have contained it quickly.

China received international praise for their containment efforts, although many doubts persist as to the truth of those efforts, but North Korea started theirs even earlier. Three days before China shut down the area around Wuhan, North Korea canceled all flights in and out of China. A few days after China quarantined Wuhan, North Korea closed it’s borders and began medically isolating every single person entering the country. It would be six weeks before another country shut its borders and forced nationwide travel restrictions.

North Korean State Television Public Health Program on COVID

The North Koreans followed up with an extensive public health campaign, including the mobilization of all health care workers in the country, and it’s possible they “succeeded in flattening the curve” of the epidemic in its nascence, said Kee Park of Harvard Medical School. Dr. Park has been volunteering in North Korean hospitals for thirteen years and, at an online United States Institute of Peace discussion earlier this month, suggested that between the aggressive North Korean response, the nearly-equivalent Chinese measures on their shared border, and the country’s preexisting hermitage, North Korea may indeed now be COVID-free.

If lockdowns and mandatory quarantines are key in containing the virus, it makes sense that an authoritarian police state may actually excel in it. Again, China’s aggressive stance is being lauded and even the Chinese Communist Party are pikers when it comes to restricting the behavior of their citizens.

Not everyone shares this assessment.

North Korea’s health care system was overburdened before the corona virus, questions persist as to how the North Korea could even provide the tests necessary in a pandemic, and DPRK diplomats have reportedly been discreetly requesting help in securing testing kits. Suspicions are also raised by the usually proud North’s silence on the American offer of immediate humanitarian aid and easing of trade restrictions.

The North made a show of going ahead with their annual parliamentary session (attended by hundreds) and the Day of the Sun holiday celebration (attended by many thousands) at which nobody wore masks. So it is curious when North Korean state media releases photos of the “heroic” Chairman Kim as the only person who is not wearing a face mask. Further, Radio Free Asia reports that North Korean officials were holding a series of public safety lectures on the pandemic, as recently as late March, in which government spokespeople said outright that there were COVID growing outbreaks in three regions of the country.

Leader Kim Jong-un attends a Korean People’s Army “artillery competition” at an undisclosed location last month. He is the only present without wearing a face mask. KCNA

Other reports have also filtered out of the North over the past two months that further contradict Pyongyang’s story. In early April, five people were reported dead from the virus in a city by the Chinese border and rumors suggest over two hundred military COVID-related casualties.

The nature of a secretive regime is to encourage rumor and speculation. That said regime also has a penchant for cruelty and repression likewise breeds the imagination and a fair deal more lurid stories have also emerged. In February stories appeared on social media of people suspected of carrying COVID being brutally kidnapped off the streets and even executed. Just last week, a North Korean defector shot by a Chinese border guard supposedly tested positive for corona virus.

And now the nation’s leader is missing.

Kim Jong-un is missing but that may mean nothing

Face masks were not all that was missing from the Day of the Sun celebrations on April 15, also absent was Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. The Day of the Sun is the birthday of Kim’s grandfather and the nation’s founder (and still president, even in death), the literally revered Kim Il-sung, and is the most important public holiday in North Korea. He was also not present at Army Day celebrations this past weekend, adding fuel to already rampant conjecture as to Kim’s health. A Hong Kong journalist said that Kim is dead while a Japanese magazine reported that he is in a “vegetative state” after heart surgery.

Kim Jong-un is uncharacteristically portly for a North Korean and given his documented chain-smoking habit outside observers have long suggested that he is in poor health. His routine supposedly includes copious amounts of alcohol and an addiction to cheese; Kim reportedly suffers from paranoia-induced insomnia, also contributing to his medical problems. That both his father and grandfather died of heart attacks are ill health omens for the younger Kim as well. It is not unrealistic that a man in his condition could succumb to a heart attack too.

In all likelihood however, Kim Jong-un is alive and well. There is little reason to doubt the reports that China sent a team of doctors to the North to assist in an operation, or post-op recovery, that went well and there are few signs of the instability that his death (or comatose state) would predictably result in. There are no reported troop movements, disruption of services, or other signs that could be associated with Kim’s death or incapacitation.

South Korean intelligence insists that they have no reason to suspect that Kim is dead or even severely impaired and suspect that he has been staying at a North Korean resort area since April 13th. Satellite images showing the private, armored train that Kim uses for travel at the station of North Korea’s most exclusive spa and beach resort supports this theory too. Some in South Korea are speculating that he may have absconded to the Wonsan resort in order to isolate himself from the corona virus but considering how regularly he eschewed wearing a mask in public, this seems an odd worry.

The executive area and private train station for North Korea’s leaders at the exclusive Wonsan resort complex is seen in a satellite image with graphics taken on April 15, 2020.
(photo credit: DISTRIBUTION AIRBUS DS/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

It bears remembering that Kim Jong-un has disappeared from public before and this January neglected to give his annual New Year’s speech to the nation. Kim’s absence from public events is noteworthy, Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official, told the Wall Street Journal, “but it’s certainly not unprecedented…Could he be dead or gravely ill?  Yes. Could it be something much more minor? Also yes.”

All of this begs the question, if something has indeed happened to Kim, what happens next? Who would replace him?

This is even more difficult to answer.

Kim is believed to have three children with his wife, Ri Sol Ju, but their oldest, a boy, would be only ten years old so presumably someone else would take the reigns – at least until his son comes of age.

It is assumed that another member of the Kim family would have to succeed him but even if his son were old enough, North Korea is best by many of the same internal power struggles seen in royal families throughout history. Kim’s father and immediate predecessor is said to have come to power by spying on and agitating against his own brother, Kim Pyong-il who may in fact be a dark horse candidate for leader now. His relatively recent return to Pyongyang from long time overseas diplomatic duties has some observers taking a second look at him but the common assessment seems to be that Kim Pyong-il is not actively ambitious for such a promotion.

The name most frequently bandied about in the world’s press the past two weeks is that of Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong. Her presence has been elevated in the past few years, including publicly representing her family at the 2018 Olympics and a recent promotion to Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs. She is undoubtedly the most high-profile member of the Kim family. Her candidacy is complicated by the apparent deep-seated patriarchal Confucian attitudes of the North Korean elite. Journalist Barbara Demick, author of “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” suggests that as far as Kim Yo-jong has climbed she has remained “in a very supportive role.” explaining to Inside Edition that, “In [last year’s US/NK summit in] Hanoi, she was like carrying his ash tray and fetching flowers, kind of like the tea ladies.”

The remaining members of the Kim family are the exiled son of his murdered brother and his older brother who is clearly more interested in Eric Clapton than running a government. Even if either man was seriously interested in staking a claim to the throne, they could expect no domestic support. What can be said fairly unequivocally is that whomever does succeed Kim Jong-un will probably also find it necessary to follow his example and further trim the family tree in order to hold onto that power.

North Korea remains a self-imposed enigma – what will happen next is even more uncertain than what is happening right now.

Thomas Brown is a history teacher and freelance writer. He is Senior Writer for The Swamp and his work on North Korea and China has also been featured in Quillette, Spiked, The Bipartisan Press, Human Events, among others. Follow him at his Medium page and argue with him on Twitter.

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Categories: Government, North Korea, The Swamp

Tags: , , , ,

2 replies

  1. As a freedom loving person l will celebrate the death of Kim Jong Un if it turns out to be true(however unlikly).
    But his death must not come with the price of destabilization of the whole Peninsula.
    That is the price we can not afford

    Liked by 1 person

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