Rumors regarding the health of Kim Jong Un began following his absence from the “Day of the Sun,” a national holiday commemorating the birth of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on Apr. 15. Furthermore, the North Korean leader’s whereabouts have not been disclosed for more than 15 days after his meeting with the Politburo of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) on Apr. 11 and a joint inspection of a pursuit assault plane group under the Air and Anti-Aircraft Division in the North’s western region.
In response, many North Korean experts have used this fragmented and unconfirmed intelligence to spread various theories claiming that Kim Jong Un has either died, been quarantined, or is engaging in recreational activities. Indeed, the consistent wrangling and chattering over the status of Kim Jong Un’s health and the flurry of unverifiable “competitive hypotheses” have only added more confusion. Moreover, a series of reports stating that China has sent medical experts to North Korea to help Kim Jong Un, in tandem with the North Korean authorities’ strange inaction to the situation, also contributes to the chaos.
ACCURATELY PARSING THE DATA
So, what exactly is going on with Kim Jong Un? It is very difficult to get a good grasp of the situation in an isolated society like North Korea for two reasons.
First, there is an absolute lack of reliable information needed for an accurate analysis. Even if highly reliable information is obtained, there are but a few additional sources which can produce convincing conclusions. For example, moments before Kim Il Sung’s death on July 8, 1994, a helicopter departed from Pyongyang in the midst of poor weather at the dead of night. However, no one could directly relate Kim Il Sung’s death to the departure of the helicopter until after a proper review of the evidence and the confirmation of his death.
A similar case is the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan ship on Mar. 26, 2010. At the time, both South Korean and US intelligence authorities confirmed that a small North Korean submarine had left its base two to three days before the sinking of the Cheonan. Intelligence about where the submarine was heading could not be collected since tracking a submarine while underwater is nearly impossible. Given that, we would find it ridiculous to criticize the South Koreans and US for failing to judge beforehand that the submarine leaving its base meant it was going to attack the Cheonan.
As such, it is often difficult to apply the greatly persuasive tool of “inductive reasoning” when analyzing North Korea. Rather, there is no other choice but to use probabilistic terms such as “maybe” and “perhaps” to make what simply amount to “uncertain assessments.”
Second, it is difficult to identify the facts through the “noise” – namely, misinformation. Auguste Rodin, dubbed the greatest modern sculptor, once said “I only strip away the needless stones (parts) to reveal God’s masterpiece hidden in the marble. As Rodin suggests, needless information must be removed in order to make accurate analysis and judgement, especially information deliberately fabricated to induce mistakes. However, this is by no means an easy task since misconceptions, prejudices, and even the characteristics of organizations tend to work in combination to create false information.
The most representative example of this problem was the misreport of Kim Il Sung’s death in Nov. 1986. The rumor was a result of two incorrect reports: a United States Army Signal Corps (USASC) military correspondent misinterpreted a somber song heard through North Korean broadcast as a funeral dirge, and a report received by the Japanese Public Security Investigation Agency that claimed Kim Il Sung has been killed and his assassins were fleeing to China.
These claims were disproved following Kim Il Sung’s appearance at Sunan International Airport to welcome the general secretary of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party on Nov. 18. In fact, the Agency for National Security Planning (ANSP) – the predecessor to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) – questioned the legitimacy of these reports, which ultimately elevated the reputation of the country’s intelligence service.
Recently, the US has been actively collecting intelligence on North Korea by mobilizing reconnaissance assets such as RC-12 reconnaissance aircraft and E-8C Joint STARS. This suggests that the US has learned from its past failed experiences judging North Korean intelligence.
However, despite the aforementioned limitations in collecting credible information on North Korea, one can infer the current status of Kim Jong Un and the country through the following confirmed reports.
- Kim Jong Un presided over a Politburo meeting on Apr. 11.
- Kim Jong Un’s private train has been stationed at Wonsan Station since Apr. 13.
- Kim Jae Ryong, Prime Minister of the Cabinet and Executive Director of Economic Affairs, inspected economic sites such as the Pyongyang Thermal Power Plant (Apr. 19) and Pak Pong Ju, vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission, inspected economic sites in Pyongyang on Apr. 29, according to Rodong Sinmun.
- Kim Jong Un did not personally send the response to the Syrian President (Apr. 22) nor the message of thanks to construction workers at the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Zone (Apr. 27) himself, but rather through others “in his name.”
A POSSIBLE SCENARIO
Although we do not know exactly, it seems clear that Kim had something wrong health-wise due to either excessive drinking or overwork. He may have retired to his villa in Wonsan to rest. He originally planned to take a short reprise in Wonsan before going up to Pyongyang on the “Day of the Sun,” but skipped the event because he was not feeling well. Therefore, he must have felt that economic issues should be left to the experts, Prime Minister Kim Jae Ryong and Vice Chairman Park Pong Ju.
What happened next, however, was unexpected. After a few days out of the public limelight, rumors began spreading of him being sick or worse. By instructing others to send diplomatic telegraphs or deliver birthday presents in his name, Kim may have wanted to add to the curiosity surrounding his health while simultaneously keeping both South Korea and the United States off balance. This kind of behavior fully utilizes the closed and isolated nature of North Korea and, so far, it has been considerably successful.
This is all, of course, mere speculation. However, we need to take this opportunity to be more cautious in approaching North Korea because properly understanding the country is not a matter of satisfying intellectual curiosity. It is a matter of life and death for us and our children’s present and future, as well as our ability to enjoy freedom and prosperity.
The author is the chairman of the North Korea Research Association.
*Translated by Jason Bartlett
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