An informed understanding of North Korean leadership stymies analysts and policy makers alike. Isolated, idiosyncratic, and intensely secretive, Pyongyang seldom reveals much about its decision making. However, there are occasional moments when the closed world of North Korean politics opens ever so slightly. But speculation and rumor also thrive under such circumstances, making it very difficult to view the North’s situation with clarity or certainty.
An Unexplained Absence
The past month and a half provides a telling example of this challenge. On September 3, Kim Jong-un, the North’s peripatetic young leader, appeared at a concert in Pyongyang, and then disappeared from view, not reappearing in official media until October 14. His prolonged, unexplained absence triggered intense interest in his whereabouts, health, and political standing, and in the stability of the regime.
What best explains Kim’s absence from public view for nearly six weeks? We need to begin with known facts. On July 8, Kim walked with a pronounced limp in a memorial service commemorating the 20th anniversary of the death of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. Videos of this event and of several subsequent political occasions did not obscure his physical condition, though there was no official explanation. On September 26, there was a single cryptic reference in official media that Kim was experiencing “discomfort.” His absence from the anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers Party on October 10 appeared to confirm continued, if undisclosed, physical problems.
Rumors of Political Infighting and Health Concerns Spread
Kim’s extended absence triggered a torrent of rumors and speculation, much of it emanating from elite defectors from the North now living and working in South Korea. While conceding that Kim might have some serious physical problems, these defectors insisted that his larger problems were political. They offered a steady stream of claims, all purportedly based on sources in the North. One group contended that Kim had been ousted in a quiet coup by leaders in the Party’s Organization and Guidance Department; others argued that unnamed senior generals had overthrown him. Some defectors claimed that there was an ongoing power struggle at the top, all while Kim was suffering from numerous debilitating medical conditions, including gout, diabetes, renal failure, and severe ankle and leg problems.
There was (and is) no way to definitively prove or disprove these arguments. But they provided catnip for newspapers and broadcast media in South Korea and beyond. Sensational claims appeared in numerous publications and on U.S. news networks. Moreover, Kim’s increasing obesity and his smoking and drinking habits lent credence to assertions about Kim’s health problems. Several leading South Korean media outlets, for example, reported that German and French doctors had visited the North to address Kim’s purported medical issues (kidney failure in the case of an unidentified German doctor, and surgery on both ankles in the case of an unidentified French doctor).
There was at least superficial plausibility to some of these reports. The Kims have relied in the past on European doctors to address serious maladies afflicting members of the ruling family, including Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, who suffered from kidney failure and from heart disease. But elite defectors, being deeply alienated from the North Korean system, were predisposed to seize on reports of Kim’s health problems, believing that his days (and perhaps the regime’s days) were numbered.
Examining the Evidence
Various elite defectors emphasized the inherent implausibility of a young, untested, and impetuous leader wielding absolute power in Pyongyang. To some, this suggested that Kim was a figurehead, albeit the “next of Kim” selected by his father. Others argued that senior figures near the center of power had grown increasingly disenchanted with Kim’s repeated purges of senior officials and his disruptive and destructive policies, thereby undermining the internal stability on which this most Confucian of systems has long rested.
However, if there had been an intense, ongoing struggle for power at the top of the system, was there evidence to substantiate it? Some sources alleged that Pyongyang was in virtual lock down in recent weeks, but visitors to the North Korean capital reported nothing to substantiate this claim. At the same time, leading South Korean and American officials detected no signs of internal upheaval such as troop redeployments or unusual activities of internal security personnel. The chairman of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Choi Yun-hee, informed Korean parliamentarians that Kim “[did] not have major problems in ruling the country.” Admiral Choi also stated that South Korean military intelligence disputed claims that Kim was in a vegetative state, though he demurred from responding to a query about the overall status of Kim’s health. Similarly, the spokesman of the Ministry of Unification has declared that “Kim Jong-un’s rule is in normal operation.”
Another reputed North Korean source informed a leading newspaper in Seoul that Kim underwent ankle and foot surgery in mid-September and was recovering at a villa away from Pyongyang. But this source claimed that senior party and army officials were visiting Kim regularly and receiving orders directly from him. These purportedly included Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong-so, Kim’s closest aide at present and one of three senior figures who traveled on one day’s notice to Incheon last week for the closing ceremonies of the Asian Games, where he also met with senior South Korean officials. Hwang and his colleagues flew to the ROK on Kim Jong-un’s personal aircraft, the first time it had ever been flown outside North Korea. Even more important, it defied rationality that three ranking officials would leave Pyongyang even for 12 hours if the capital was in the midst of an intense power struggle.
But the longer Kim remained absent, the more it raised doubts about his well-being. Kim’s recent reappearance while relying on a cane suggests that his immediate physical problems concern one or both legs and ankles. The new photographs appearing in North Korean media suggest tentative, somewhat awkward bodily movements; Kim seems far from fully recovered from what ails him. It is also possible that he confronts other undisclosed conditions. But Kim must have decided that it was better to resurface (albeit in a somewhat diminished state) than remain absent from the political scene. Even within a hermetically sealed leadership process, visibility matters.
Kim Jong-un’s return does not mean that all is settled in Pyongyang. North Korea remains an acutely damaged society confronting prodigious problems, overseen by a young, self-important leader who seems unable or unwilling to grasp the enormity of the longer-term crisis that the regime confronts. But understanding North Korea must begin with what is known, not with what those outside the North hope for or imagine.
On February 24, Vanda Felbab-Brown joins the National Committee on US-China Relations for a discussion on “The faces of fentanyl: China, the United States, and those in-between.”
It seems like the administration has tried to keep a clear, consistent tone in terms of being really upfront about the range of U.S. concerns vis-à-vis Beijing’s behavior and about the competitive nature of the relationship overall, and [President Biden's first call with Chinese President Xi] reflects that.