Dead or alive? North Korean leader Kim Jong Un captivates the world amid a pandemic

Dead or alive? North Korean leader Kim Jong Un captivates the world amid a pandemic

The Straits Times·2020-04-28 21:54

BEIJING - The conspicuous absence of North Korea's enigmatic leader Kim Jong Un from April's celebrations marking his late grandfather's birth anniversary fuelled speculation in the media and among pundits about the strongman's health and whereabouts.It all began last week when CNN, quoting a US official "with direct knowledge", reported that Washington was monitoring intelligence suggesting that Mr Kim was in grave danger after undergoing surgery.US National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien lent credence to the report when he told Fox News last Tuesday (April 21): "We're monitoring these reports very closely." Two days later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview with Fox: "We are watching the situation very keenly."At least one pundit, a relative of a retired Chinese diplomat, claimed in her WeChat account that Mr Kim was dead. Others speculated that Mr Kim was in critical or stable condition after a heart bypass surgery performed by a group of Chinese surgeons. Daily NK, a Seoul-based website, reported that he was recovering after the operation on April 12.Citing three people familiar with the situation, Reuters reported that China had dispatched a team to North Korea, which included medical experts, to advise on Mr Kim but the news agency added that it was unable to immediately determine what the trip by the delegation signalled in terms of his health.South Korea's JoongAng Daily reported that Mr Kim did not attend the April 15 event commemorating the 108th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, the North's founder, after one of the younger Kim's bodyguards was suspected to have been infected with Covid-19.A North Korean activist said on Twitter that it was because the coronavirus had exploded in North Korea, and Mr Kim had gone into hiding to avoid being infected.Amid the conflicting reports, there is at least one other possibility: Mr Kim is not ill and fooled the world, which went into a frenzy because he missed one of the most important days in North Korea's political calendar.One day before the celebrations, Pyongyang flexed its military muscles and fired a barrage of missiles from the ground and from fighter jets. But, to Mr Kim's disappointment, the US and the rest of the world did not react, or overreact, as everyone was too busy dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than three million people and killed over 210,000 globally."Kim Jong Un did not like it when the US ignored him. It's as if he and North Korea did not exist," a source with ties to the Chinese leadership told The Straits Times, explaining the motive for his disappearing act."The secrecy surrounding his whereabouts and health put him back in the media limelight, which he loves," the source said, requesting anonymity.A second source with ties to both Beijing and Pyongyang told The Straits Times at the outset: "Everything is fine. There is no problem at all." But the source, who correctly predicted Mr Kim's rise in 2011, declined to provide further details.The North's third-generation hereditary leader was last seen in public on April 11 at a Politburo meeting of the Workers' Party of Korea, according to North Korean state news agency KCNA.GUESSING GAMEThis is not Mr Kim's first disappearing act. In 2014, he vanished for more than a month and North Korean state television later showed him limping. His smoking, weight gain and family history of cardiovascular problems have fanned speculation about the health of the North Korean dictator, who is believed to be 36 years old.North Korea is arguably the world's most isolated and secretive country, and the health of its leaders is considered a state secret.China is North Korea's main supplier of food and oil and has a keen interest in its stability as they share a long and porous border. The hermit kingdom's economy has been crippled by UN sanctions which were imposed after it flouted UN resolutions by conducting nuclear and missiles tests in the mid-2000s.Asked to comment on China sending a medical team to North Korea, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters: "I don't know where the source of the information is. No information is available on this specific issue."The US and South Korea have since downplayed the rumours over Mr Kim's health, but there has been no official explanation for his disappearance."I think the report was incorrect," US President Donald Trump said.Mr Kim is "alive and well", Mr Moon Chung-in, a top security adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, told CNN on Sunday.North Korean media has also broken its silence on its leader, publishing a letter from Mr Kim to South Africa's leader dated Monday (April 27).But the North Korean strongman remains out of sight, leaving speculation to continue."Kim might reappear some time soon, apparently in control of North Korea. He might remain out of sight, potentially incapacitated, for a prolonged period of time. Or he might be confirmed dead or incapable of governing," Mr Duyeon Kim and Mr Leif-Eric Easley wrote in Foreign Policy."The challenges and expectations for allied responses to each of these three scenarios are not mutually exclusive," they wrote. "Whatever the fate of the North Korean leader, close cooperation between the United States and South Korea is essential."Only time can tell which version of events is correct. The rest of the world has little choice but to wait for Mr Kim to reappear, or not reappear, in public.

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