On August 20, 2020, behind closed doors, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service presented to the National Assembly a report that evoked the latest round of commotion regarding the North Korean leader’s fitness to serve.
Members of the media reported that Kim Byung-kee, a representative of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, and Ha Tae-keung, a representative of the opposition United Future Party, informed them that Kim Jong-un had delegated part of his authority to some of his aides, including his younger sister Kim Yo-jong, who is currently the first vice department director of the Workers’ Party Central Committee. “Chairman Kim Jong-un is still maintaining his absolute authority, but some of it has been handed over little by little. Kim Yo-jong is the de facto leader No. 2, responsible for inter-Korean relations and foreign policy affairs. Control over the economic sector is in the hands of Pak Pong-ju (ex-premier, currently the vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission), and current premier Kim Tok-hun. Military and security matters are supervised by Choe Pu-il (former minister of internal affairs, currently the party’s director on military affairs), and Ri Pyon-chol, vice chairman of the Korean Workers’ Party’s (KWP) Central Military Commission.
According to statements by the intelligence officers, this division of authority is directed partially toward relieving stress (from Kim) due to his nine-year rule, and staving off culpability should his policies fail. At the same time “Kim Jong-un is not in poor health and he has not picked an heir to succeed him.”
There was no indication, on what basis this conclusion was reached, yet it was noted that in 2020, prior to August 20, Kim Jong-un made 132 public appearances, which was 65% less than during an equivalent period in the previous year.
Also, the report noted that the Yongbyon 5MWe nuclear reactor is not currently in operation. The activity level of North Korean military personnel is low. Summer military training was reduced by 25 – 65 percent in comparison to the prior year. Additionally, recent floods inflicted the most serious damage to the provinces of Kangwondo and Hwanghae-do, and due to closure of the borders with China and Russia, and fear of the Covid-19 virus, the North is experiencing a shortage of foreign currency.
In truth, it became immediately clear, that Deputy Ha did not understand everything correctly. A few hours later a representative from the intelligence service explained to journalists that the agency meant that more authority has been delegated to officials compared to the past. But as our readers remember, not everyone reads denials, and the phrase, “delegation of authority,” spread wide and far around the media.
And although it was specifically noted that delegation of authority did not appear in any way related to Kim Jong-un’s health, the mass media accompanied the news with rumors that Kim Jong-un was critically ill.
The icing on the cake was the announcement by Chang Song-min. Already on the evening of August 20, the former aide to deceased president Kim Dae-jung stated on his Facebook page that “no North Korean leader would entrust his authority to another person, unless he was too ill to govern, or had been removed in the event of a coup.” And since delegating authority in North Korea is impossible, this meant that Kim Jong-un was in a coma, not able to govern the North. Moreover, North Korea’s leader had been in a coma since the beginning of April (a tip Chang received from an anonymous source in China), and all his later public statements were falsified by the authorities.
The yellow media could not let all that pass without comment, and people desirous of hype, so-called “experts,” immediately began to add to this news secret information that Kim Jong-un fell into a coma during brain surgery, and that the reins of power were assumed by Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Pyong-il, who was the ambassador to eastern European countries, but then returned home. Others began to “analyze a photo of the leader at different times,” proving the case for a double, and frequently lowering themselves to photoshopping as proof that “he’s not the real leader.”
In the confusion, it somehow escaped the attention of everyone chattering that Kim Jong-un could not physically be in a coma, since on August 19 he spoke at a plenum of the Central Committee of the KWP, and on August 26 chaired a Political Bureau meeting, where measures were discussed to minimize the damage from the approaching, powerful Typhoon Bavi, and additional anti-epidemic measures.
And simultaneously with the publication of the report, other wire services noted, on the contrary, that Kim Yo-jong had “gone missing,” and had not been present at several important meetings. In reality, her formal status as the vice director of a department in the Central Committee cannot be compared in rank with others, and it may be that she was ill, or there was another reason.
With regard to Chang’s announcement that “everything was faked,” NK News noted that the videos of Kim’s visits to the construction sites of Pyongyang’s General Hospital, and Kwangchon Chicken Farm, which were broadcast at the end of July, show that the visits took place just a few days before reports by state media sources.
A survey of images of Kim with high resolution, published by North Korea’s media during this year, also do not show any noticeable differences in the smallest of facial features, which sweeps away the version of a double.
The author also calls attention to fact that the issue is not so much about established facts, as much as it is about a few speculative conclusions, to which the “intelligence” officers arrived, and it is not always understood, what drove them to such conclusions. Yes, Choe Pu-il and Ri Pyon-chol were elevated recently, and Pak Pong-ju and Kim Tok-hun recently inspected regions that suffered flooding, but this does not mean that they had been delegated authority. Yes, the leader’s sister spoke actively with announcements that concerned inter-Korean politics and relations with the US, but at the same time, she often disclosed that she was repeating her brother’s positions, and de facto, this was a convenient way to give a hint on behalf of a person who does not formally occupy high-level positions, but enjoys great influence.
North Korea’s hierarchy of power always contemplated that directly under Kim Jong-un served several people, who managed key directions. This was the formal director of legislative power and those responsible for military affairs, executive authority, and the party apparatus. For example, Choe Ryong Hae was Kim’s assistant for party matters up until the time he left to work in the Supreme People’s Assembly.
Most likely, this entire commotion must be viewed in the context of South Korea’s internal politics. As our readers remember, Moon Jae-in recently reshuffled the team that oversaw security, including the director of the National Intelligence Service. Park Jie-won, was appointed to this position, a man not from law enforcement, but who had certain contacts with the North during Kim Dae-jung’s presidency. This appointment, understandably, caused arguments, since doubts about his competency arose not only among the politically partisan opposition. Therefore, such a report must be viewed as an attempt by the new leadership of the National Intelligence Service to demonstrate to Parliament and the nation that their leadership has not lowered the agency’s effectiveness, and moreover, they found numerous pieces of important and sensational information.
That way, an impression grows that the National Intelligence Service once again has “discovered America,” while at the same time setting its assumptions in a partisan context, in which any event in North Korea arises as the consequence of the economic and political crisis in the country, which demonstrates that the regime is weakening. At the same time their work includes not only fortune telling from coffee grounds, but openly speculative theses. And even North Korea’s leader’s continued public appearances are explained, conspiratorially, that the leader is not the real one.
It’s not difficult to understand, how such a break from reality might end.
Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, leading science associate of the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East of the RAS, specially for the internet magazine “ New Eastern Outlook”.