Kim Learned His Disappearing Act From Dad
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Maintaining mystery around the North Korean leader is key to preserving the regime's aura.
By Pallabi Munsi
It was 2008 and North Korea’s then leader, Kim Jong Il, had vanished from the public eye. He was absent from a grand military parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the country’s founding on Sept. 9.
Days stretched to weeks, and weeks to months. Speculation about Kim’s whereabouts and well-being were rampant, recalls Victor Cha, former director for Asian affairs at the White House National Security Council. But the North Korean regime and its media agency, KCNA, never acknowledged that anything was out of the ordinary.
Then, suddenly, after 80 days during which journalists hounded intelligence officers for answers, the North Korean leader emerged in public, watching a soccer game held at the family’s Kangdong residence in Pyongyang. He had suffered a stroke that summer and had been recovering. It was around that time that he started promoting his third son, Kim Jong Un, as his possible successor, says Joshua Pollack, senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
Twelve years later, Kim Jong Un — the country’s leader since his father’s death in 2011 — disappeared from public view. Like his father, he was absent from a major national event — the birthday anniversary of his grandfather and regime founder Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, on April 15. Rumors were swirling once again, this time about whether the junior Kim, 36, was recovering from a surgery, ill or perhaps even dead. On Saturday, May 2, North Korea’s state news agency said Kim had appeared at a ceremony in a fertilizer factory, later releasing photos and video.
The ones who know will not speak, and the ones who speak do not really know.
Joshua Pollack, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey
For now, the clearest answers might lie in the family’s medical history and its penchant for disappearing acts, rather than leaked intelligence and speculation. The North Korean regime’s track record shows how adept it is at keeping the world guessing, a skill that Kim Jong Un learned from his father.
“In the end, the only way we knew was when he showed up in the fall of 2008 having shown clear signs of a stroke with 30 pounds of weight loss, weakness on the left side and a noticeable limp,” says Cha, now Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, about Kim Jong Il’s reappearance.
An official North Korean newspaper confirmed that it had been a tough couple of weeks for the “Dear Leader,” as Kim Jong Il was known. French neurosurgeon Dr. François-Xavier Roux, who was flown into North Korea by the regime to treat the leader, said that Kim had indeed suffered a stroke but was recovering.
“The uncertainty back then sparked very real, very relevant questions about what might happen in this impoverished, nuclear-armed country where there was no clear chain of succession,” writes Jean H. Lee, the Associated Press’ former Pyongyang correspondent, on the Wilson Center website.
Those questions are reemerging during Kim Jong Un’s absence, though South Korean officials and U.S. President Donald Trump have suggested that he is still alive.
“While there is very little fact to base it on, it should be kept in mind that he is 5-foot-7 and weighs over 300 pounds,” says Robert Manning, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “He smokes a lot, drinks a lot, doesn’t exercise and the family has a history of heart problems. So it wouldn’t be a great shock if he did have some heart condition or [a] heart attack.”
According to 38 North, a Stimson Center platform dedicated to monitoring North Korea, Chung Eui-yong, South Korea’s national security adviser, told Kim during an April 2018 meeting: “How about stopping smoking? It’s bad for your health.” Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, who was also present, allegedly chimed in, saying, “I always ask him to quit smoking. But he won’t listen to me.”
North Korea’s leaders have also vanished in the past for security reasons. In 2003, Kim Jong Il was missing for an extended period of time. “The best explanation for this is that he was worried that he’d be a target of attack by the United States,” Pollack says.
This time, experts say Kim might be self-isolating to avoid catching the coronavirus. North Korea’s claim that it has zero COVID-19 cases is hard to believe. “The borders with China were open till March and crossover from China is quite a lot,” says Manning. “It is impossible that North Korea doesn’t have a single case.”
Pollack points out how North Korea announced plans in March to construct a new hospital in central Pyongyang by October. “What was the need to suddenly turn one of the few open spaces in the center of the capital into a hospital with such urgency?” he asks. “Of course, COVID-19 comes to mind.”
Something might have happened in the first half of April that appears to have “really spooked [Kim],” adds Pollack.
But don’t expect the North Korean regime to shed light on the matter. Preserving an aura of mystery is a key element of how authoritarian leaders control their civilian population. Sure, some things have changed with time. “Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather were way more reclusive than he has ever been,” says Manning.
Yet experts agree that what happens in North Korea stays in North Korea. “The ones who know will not speak, and the ones who speak do not really know,” Pollack says.
“We will only know,” says Cha, “when [Kim] is present again with some clearly visible ailment. Or, the lady shows up in a black hanbok on KCNA news and tells us he is dead.”
- Pallabi Munsi, OZY AuthorContact Pallabi Munsi