Skip to main content
jong_un_kim005
On the Record

Where in the World is Kim Jong Un?


Editor’s Note: Katharine Moon gave an interview with CHQR News Talk AM 770’s Dave Taylor on the recent absence of Kim Jong Un.

Dave Taylor: It’s been I believe 38, 39 days since anybody has seen Kim Jong-un in public, the North Korean dictator. Since he is allegedly the all-powerful supreme leader of North Korea and since North Korea is probably the most secretive society on the planet – the most secretive country on the planet – the speculation is running wild now as to what’s happened. There’s speculation that there’s been a coup inside the repressive country or that Kim might be dead or very sick or at least sick enough because there has been one reference – one official reference – to him being in discomfort, along with a picture of him limping that he might be in an uncomfortable enough position, if you will, that he just can’t get around and about in public. Maybe it’s gout, has been one theory. So we’re trying to figure that out a little bit.

Katharine Moon is a professor at Wellesley College, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and expert on U.S.-Korea relations and she’s agreed to come on and engage in, hopefully, not just fruitless speculation, but some speculation, nevertheless, I guess with us.

Katharine, welcome to the program.

Katharine Moon: Hi, thank you for having me there.

Taylor: Glad to. So there has been a lot of speculation. Let me ask you straight up, what are the chances that Kim has been deposed in a coup?

Moon: Well, in my view, the speculations have run the gamut. As you already have summarized, and I think the chances of there having been a coup in North Korea is not high on my list. Let me explain why.

If there has been a coup, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to have business as usual in Pyongyang, in the capital in particular. And so far, my contacts who are doing business in Pyongyang and news media and Western news media in Pyongyang, they said it’s business as usual and there are Western NGOs as well as foreign tourists going in and out of North Korea regularly.

And most important to think about is that there is an institute in London, the IISS, which is an independent, top-notch, military research think tank, that has stated there is absolutely no unusual troop movement in North Korea or any other sign of coup and the South Korean military, which would normally be on high alert, is not. Rather than focusing on Pyongyang, it helps us to look at other responses to see if people are picking up signs of coups and then therefore responding. You don’t see that.

Taylor: Okay, just for a second focusing on Pyongyang, I guess, the way you described it, you described Western tourists going in and out of the country, Western business interests and you made it sound as though maybe North Korea is not quite as closed off as we normally assume that it is. Or are these just trickles of tourists and Western business people?

Moon: Well, I think compared to a normal democratic country or even like China, these are trickles in terms of Western tourists. The DPRK only recently started, officially, a tourist industry that caters to Westerners. I was there last two summers ago, myself, on one of these tours with some academics. I would definitely tell you that it is not as closed off a society, as is commonly assumed, and there is quite a lot of change and growth and development within the society, especially in the capital.

Taylor: So what are the implications of that, I guess, sort of a two-pronged question: what are the implications of that for the Kim dynasty, if I can call it that because Kim Jong-un is third in a row in the family to be the supreme leader of North Korea. And what are the implications for the people of North Korea?

Moon: Well, I want to get back to the issue of if there had been a coup and the impact on the dynasty. For one, we have heard many reports that his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, who’s only 26 or 27, is actually running the day-to-day management. I’m not going to say she is running the country, but the management of executive affairs. She has served, as sort of the executive secretary of her brother, Kim Jong-un, and her late father, Kim Jong-il. They share the same father, obviously. If there had been a coup, there is no way that a Kim, a member of that Kim family, could feel safe enough to stick around, especially in the public eye, and even if she’s being used by some other force that’s controlling the country as some people are saying, she is an incredibly loyal person to her brother. So I don’t see her as possibly succumbing to that kind of manipulation by others, in terms of using her as a figurehead and betraying her brother.

I think what’s really important to keep in mind is who started or generated these rumors about his disappearance, about the possible coup. So we have to keep in mind that it’s really coming from loudly and clearly, originally from defectors from North Korea who went to the south.

Taylor: Wishful thinking on their part?

Moon: Well, I don’t know if it’s wishful thinking. I don’t know what they’re thinking and many of them do have good intentions, but I think it’s really important to keep in mind that as a scholar who’s – I’m working on a book on defectors in South Korea – what is interesting is that defectors and exiles in general, across the board, not just North Koreans in the South, but defectors tend to have their current events colored by their past experiences and they’re usually negative. In the case of one of the major leaders, Mr. Jang Jin-sung, who has been the one who began publicly saying this in the Netherlands in September, he left North Korea in 2004, that’s ten years ago. And it is very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a clear consistent line of communication about what’s going on in a country that’s closed.

Taylor: So, what’s your best guess? Is Kim sick?

Moon: Well, my best guess is he might be ill? He might be very ill? We don’t know, but there’s also this possibility, and this is my own idea at this time that has not been popularized. My view is that it’s highly possible that he’s ill, but it’s also simultaneously possible that the North Korean elite, including Kim Jong-un, are using this hiatus period to focus on diplomacy that’s very diverse. As you may know, North Koreans have been conducting diplomacy in Europe, in New York at the General Assembly, and South Korea, with Japan; they’ve been going all out. I think in a way it gives Kim Jong-un a chance to sit back and watch others test the waters while he recuperates, if he’s ill. In this way, he doesn’t have to face any backlash if there’s a problem in diplomacy that goes wrong.

Taylor: Can you stay with me a bit longer? We need to take a break, but when we come back I’d like to talk about the reasoning behind all this flurry of diplomacy all of a sudden. Is North Korea starting to open up to the world and what does this portend for the future?

Taylor: So I think you’ve crafted it as him being ill as plausible. If not, more so a scenario than this notion that Kim Jong-un has been deposed in a coup. That he’s actually sitting back watching this flurry of diplomatic activity that people underneath him are involved in all over the world to see how it plays out. What’s behind all of this Katharine?

Moon: Well, the diversification of diplomacy that North Koreans have initiated, that effort started before these rumors about his so-called disappearance. That is real, based on reality which is economic needs. They have lost China, at least for the time being, as the primary support – economic support for North Korea – and so they’ve been in dire straits. Their nation’s been put under sanctions so foreign exchange is very hard to get in North Korea. They don’t have enough investment funds. So on a whole range of issues, economic interests are really serious to pursue. These diplomatic efforts have significantly been to try to see where there might be an opening for new money, new trade.

And a second issue is, as you know, North Korea’s been under quite a lot of international pressure and negative publicity, as far as they see it, for their human rights violations. And so I think this is another way to show kind of a, I won’t go so far as to say ‘charm offensive,’ but I call it ‘surprise diplomacy.’ Meaning surprise, we can smile, we can show up at international gatherings, we can actually talk to you, we won’t (inaudible).

I think these are just two of the issues. I think there is a genuine interest to try to – sort of feel out what the rest of the world looks like.

Taylor: Are we making a mistake if we see this is as liberalization in North Korea? Are they still part of, what George W. Bush famously called, the “axis of evil?”

Moon: I would not concur with former President Bush’s notion of the “axis of evil.” I think it was a misnomer in the first place. Definitely didn’t help us in terms of our relationship with the North Koreans, diplomatically. But, I do not believe this is any sign of liberalization as we know it and North Korea has too far to go for us to say its liberalizing. I think it’s exploring.

Like any rational government, you explore your opportunity because you have specific interests and they have specific interests. Economic as well as strategic, as well as public relations and a better image. In that sense, we need to see where they go and to me, what’s important is whether they’re consistently going to pursue this kind of diplomatic niceness, rather than testing missiles and testing nuclear devices.

Taylor: Why are the North Koreans so unpredictable?

Moon: Well, unpredictable is a relative term. Some of us who studied North Korea for a long time, especially historically, some of us see it as very predictable. In terms of, over 60 years of a wartime situation, where there’s no peace treaty between the North-the U.S., South-North Koreans, and the most heavily militarized area in the world. Under that circumstance, they have been highly predictable. There’s been no major outbreak of military incursion or aggression and they’ve pretty much held the peace. And they’ve been predictable in terms of their succession. They’ve had peaceful succession and we may not like the dynastic aspect of dictatorship, but nevertheless it’s been peaceful and stable. And strangely enough, they often let the world know, especially the U.S. and South Korea, when they’re about to do something that the U.S. and South Korea and the rest of the world don’t like. They usually say in advance-

Taylor: That’s true

Moon: – ‘we are planning to launch rockets.’ ‘We are planning to do this.’ It’s a strange way to go about doing surprise attacks, but in reality, they don’t always achieve that kind of surprise. I think sometimes in the West, we hope that they will behave better, but when they do these tests, and when they do act in ways that seem hostile, the reaction is natural. It shocks us, it stuns us and it scares us.

Taylor: Is there, in all of this, the opportunity for some warming of diplomatic ties between them and us? And if that were to happen, what would that look like?

Moon: ‘Us’ for you is Canada, ‘us’ for me is the U.S. and I would say these kinds of activities right now, we just have to watch and see. The consistency, how long they can sustain it and the depth. How much are they willing to go in terms of actual negotiations when they have to show up and sit at the table? And how much of this is sort of footsie-playing? I don’t know. But I think as far as the United States government goes, the bar is set pretty high. We have U.S. hostages in North Korea and we are going to want them out of North Korea before we give them the light of day in terms of negotiations. We also have very clear goals about denuclearization and how to start the talks and how not to start the talks. We will not be taken in by any so-called charm offensive that the North Koreans might try to perform. And then there of course, is the big issue of U.S. sanctions that the North Koreans want to get rid of, but I don’t think the U.S. will move on these things until and unless North Koreans show a consistent and substantive warming-up or opening-up of interests and access.

Taylor: Okay, Katharine, thank you for your time today. Really appreciate it.

Moon: I enjoyed it, thank you very much.

More

Get daily updates from Brookings