Recently, we reported about the Politburo meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea on 11 April 2020 and a modest celebration of the Day of the Sun. Since then Kim Jong-un has not been seen in public. He even skipped an annual visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on 15 April to mark the 108th anniversary since the birth of Kim Il-sung, which gave rise to rumors of a particular sort. It was the first important holiday that he missed out on after coming to power in 2012.
On 20 April 2020, news outlet CNN reported that DPRK leader Kim Jong-un was possibly “in grave danger after undergoing a previous surgery, according to a US official with direct knowledge”.
South Korean online newspaper Daily NK wrote that Kim Jong-un was under the care of doctors at the Hyang San Villa after his heart surgery on 12 April, and that most of the medical team had returned back to Pyongyang once his condition had reportedly stabilized. The outlet’s source also speculated that Kim had to undergo an operation because of “a number of factors, including his obesity, prolific smoking habits, and overwork.”
CNN also noted that it was “unable to independently confirm” this report. “The National Security Council and Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined” to make a statement about Kim Jong-un’s health. In addition, CNN “reached out to the CIA and the State Department for comment.” An unnamed US official told CNN that the concerns about Kim’s health were “credible but the severity was hard to assess.”
Other sources mentioned in the article also doubted the veracity of this story. Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former CIA deputy division chief for North Korea, said that there had been “a number of recent rumors about Kim’s health” and if North Korea’s leader was indeed hospitalized, it would explain why he had not attended “the important April 15th celebrations.” “But, over the years, there have been a number of false health rumors about Kim Jong-un or his father. We’ll have to wait and see,” he added. John Delury, a professor at the School of International Studies of Yonsei University, also thinks it is easy to be wrong about this.
Nonetheless, this piece of news spread throughout the world and some tabloids even reported that the United States was monitoring intelligence that the North Korean leader was “in a coma.” And although on 21 April, the Korean Central News Agency reported that the Chairman of the DPRK State Affairs Commission had congratulated President of Cuba Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez on his 60th birthday, and on 22 April, Kim Jong-un had replied to President of Syria Bashar al-Assad who had sent him a greeting on Kim Il-sung’s birthday, it was impossible to stop “experts” from discussing the crisis in Pyongyang, the intricacies of the possible handover of power or the upcoming democratic revolution.
MSNBC’s journalist tweeted that Kim Jong-un was brain dead. According to some of author’s counterparts, there are many rumors circulating in Seoul about Kim Jong-un being in critical condition, incapacitated but still alive. Others believe that the North Korean leader had been ousted or infected with the Coronavirus.
In the meantime, officials from the United States, the ROK and China have not confirmed any of the speculations and have, instead, said that they were aware of the rumors and were attempting to find out the truth. On 21 April, a number of statements regarding Kim Jong-un’s health were made.
US President Donald Trump said that the United States did not “know the condition North Korean leader Kim Jong-un” was in. He also wished Kim well “but cast doubt on the credibility of” CNN’s story, which was among the first to report that Kim could be in grave danger.
In an interview with Fox news, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said that the Trump administration was “keeping a close eye” on reports regarding North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s health. He also assured Americans that the nation’s intelligence community remained focused on external threats amid the Coronavirus pandemic. The official also mentioned that the United States had “a great intelligence community,” invoking senior administration officials including President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.
General John E. Hyten, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out that he had no additional information about the current state of Kim Jong-un’s health. “I don’t have anything to confirm or deny anything along those lines, so I assume that Kim Jong-un is still in full control of the Korean nuclear forces and the Korean military forces. I have no reason not to assume that,” he added.
Deputy Director of the Foreign Ministry Information Department of China Geng Shuang said that “the government was aware of the reports” about Kim Jong-un’s health but “did not know their source, declining to comment further on the matter.” Government officials from the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department that deals with North Korea “challenged subsequent reports suggesting that Kim was in grave danger after surgery.”
On April 21, Presidential Blue House spokesperson Kang Min-seok stated that there had been “no unusual signs” identified inside North Korea that could confirm Chairman Kim’s alleged health problems.
Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun, who chairs the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, stated that it appeared the North Korean leader had undergone “cardiovascular surgery.” He clarified that the information did not come from government sources but instead from “people well-versed in North Korea issues.”
NK News has reported that, according to many of its sources, life in Pyongyang was continuing as normal.
On 22 of April, the Yomiuri Shimbun chose to add fuel to the fire with their article. “Citing sources from South Korea, US and Japan,” the newspaper reported that the “Workers’ Party had made a decision late last year” to focus “all authority on Kim Yo-jong if her brother became unable to rule due to unforeseen circumstances or his death.” The article also stated that since then “many instructions and statements” had been issued in her name.
As a result, more rumors began swirling, but the author of this article is accustomed to analyzing any sensational news items about the DPRK by looking into their sources. According to CNN, one of its sources is “a US official with direct knowledge” of the situation in North Korea. In two thirds of such cases, news is either deliberately leaked or made up by authors.
The second source, Daily NK, is a truly noteworthy South Korean online newspaper whose reports are based on “stories allegedly obtained from inside North Korea via a network of informants.” Naturally, none of their names can be used in articles because that would put their lives at risk. Hence, most of its news stories include statements similar to the following: “an anonymous source from Chagang Province claims that all the disabled children in Pyongyang were exterminated for the fifth time that year.” Still, even a stopped clock is right twice a day but, all in all, a substantial portion of reports published by this particular outlet is misleading.
And the article from the Yomiuri Shimbun begs the question: “How did a media outlet of a nation that is at odds with the DPRK obtain access to information that, in theory, only a select group of people should have been aware of?”. It is much more reasonable to assume that as the role of the North Korean leader’s sister grew in importance, some staff at the newspaper must have concluded that there was reason for such a change and cited an anonymous source in their report.
Interestingly, rumors that Kim Jong-un could be seriously incapacitated due to health issues began circulating at the beginning of the year and mainly among individuals who actively promote anti-North Korean propaganda.
“Unverified claims in February 11 and February 14, 2020 videos said Kim was suffering from heart disease and had undergone an unsuccessful operation in China in early January.” As a result, “two world-renowned cardiologists were called in from France, apparently arriving by private jet in Pyongyang on February 10.” However, NK News was unable “to corroborate the reports and found no evidence in satellite imagery of private jets arriving that day at Pyongyang’s Sunan airport.”
NK News also wrote that on April 18, there had been a rumor swirling “in Seoul that suggested Kim Jong-un was brain dead after a botched surgery.” In fact, much of the text in the aforementioned story “reused wording from a similar rumor” which had circulated in Korean media in 2014, when Kim Jong-un had “disappeared for 40 days before re-emerging in state media with a cane.” South Korean intelligence agencies later said that he had undergone “surgery to have a cyst removed from his ankle.” Other sources claimed that the North Korean leader injured his ankle “after pushing ahead with visits” of military bases.
Hence, in the end, our only remaining clue is Kim Jong-un’s absence at the events on April 15. Is it possible that he missed the celebrations on account of his health? In theory, the answer is yes. After all, Kim Jong-un smokes heavily and is prone to obesity. In addition, there is a long history of diabetes in his family as both his father and grandfather suffered from this disease. Besides, the North Korean leader does work a lot, and even regular trips to the mountains may have a negative effect on his health. Still, heart problems or even a hear attack that he is apparently recovering from is not equivalent to “being brain-dead.” And congratulatory messages sent by Kim Jong-un indicate that he is carrying out state affairs as normal.
And even if we were to assume the worst, in 2011, for instance, the announcement about the death of the North Korean leader was made on December 19, two days after he had passed away. And since such a period of time has already elapsed, and there has been no confirmation of him being in a coma other than an anonymous source, we can assume the story is a hoax.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.