Is North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un dead or alive? It all depends on the source of information.
The confusion over the health status of the Supreme Leader is par for the course for a reclusive and restrictive regime, explains Board Member of the North Korean human rights organization HanVoice, Jack Kim, in an exclusive interview with Liberty Nation. Kim also echoed a widely accepted opinion that it is incredibly difficult for outsiders to report on the internal developments inside Pyongyang since officials possess an iron grip over information.
Until North Korea’s leader re-emerges, the media speculation on his well-being will be rampant. For now, the chatter is on the potential successor. The punditry class believe the two favorites are Kim Yo-jong, his sister; and Kim Pyong-il, his uncle. Whether it is unfolding at the present or it is in the future, the HanVoice founder suggests there will likely be an “internal struggle” to lead North Korea.
“North Korea has known no one else except for someone whose surname starts with Kim,” he told Liberty Nation, noting that Kim’s sister could be used as leverage or follow in her brother’s footsteps since she had always been involved in politics.
President Donald Trump revealed to reporters during a recent Rose Garden news conference that he knows how Kim is doing “relatively speaking,” adding that the public will probably learn more “in the not-too-distant future.” The White House previously confirmed that it was monitoring the situation “very closely,” while U.S. intelligence said reports of Kim’s health being in “grave danger” were credible. Japanese media claimed Kim had been in a vegetative state due to a botched cardiovascular procedure.
Other regional neighbors believe there is nothing to see here. The South Korean government went on record that he is “alive and well,” and there have been “no suspicious movements” detected. Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul averred that it is plausible Kim could be limiting his public appearances out of caution over the Coronavirus. Chinese officials also publicly asserted that they believe Kim is not ill.
Smooth Transition or Internal Struggle?
Kim Pyong-il has suddenly become a frontrunner to lead the Democratic People’s Republic. This development might lend credence to the idea of domestic strife within the top echelons of government. He is the last known survivor of the Hermit Kingdom’s founder, Kim Il-sung, and was passed over for leadership by his half-brother, the late Kim Jong-il. Perhaps it is a Shakespearean tragedy of an heir apparent to the throne seeking what he thinks is rightfully his after spending 40 years as a diplomat in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, and Poland.
Could it happen due to gender politics within the autocratic confines of the nation? Jack Kim noted that North Korea is a male-dominated society, and Kim Yo-jong may find it hard to govern in this environment. She might choose to maintain her current role as a policy director and a sort of woman behind the curtain figure.
Either way, the generals who guard the Kim legacy would ensure that only a Kim is in power, for they are determined to be the true loyalists.
Is it possible that Kim could be playing a trick on the international community? Dr. Bruce Bennett, a senior international and defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, states it is no secret that Kim enjoys being at the center of global media attention.
“The problem that we face is Kim Jong-un really likes to get media coverage from the outside world,” Bennett told LN. “He thinks that’s important because it indicates that he is important. He is a guy the world should be paying attention to, so it’s good for his internal political purposes. He is not about to silence the discussion very rapidly. I think he is probably enjoying all this speculation.”
Ascent to the Throne
His official birthday is listed by Pyongyang as January 8, 1982, but South Korea claims his real birth date is January 8, 1984. Why the modification for something as benign as a date of birth? Symbolism: 1982 had been 70 years since the birth of Kim Il-sung and 40 years since the birth of his father.
He and his four siblings lived and studied in Switzerland, attending the private English-language International School in Gümligen. According to various reports, Kim was enrolled under “Chol-pak” or “Pak-chol” between 1993 and 1998. From 1998 to 2000, he studied at the Liebefeld Steinhölzli state school in Köniz near Bern under the name “Pak-un” or “Un-pak.” Kim was reportedly a friendly kid, a good student, and a huge basketball fan.
It was here that he experienced the vast wealth of the West, helping him grasp the success of a market-oriented system. It also explains his affinity for Yves Saint Laurent cigarettes, Johnnie Walker whiskey, and Mercedes-Benz. As The Economist wrote in 2015, this exposure might have contributed to Pyongyang’s rising shift from anti-market to “economic management in our own style.”
The story of his ascent to the throne is comparable to his father’s rise to power.
Kim Jong-nam, his eldest half-brother, fell out of favor in the family in 2001 after he was caught trying to enter Japan on a fraudulent passport to visit Tokyo Disneyland. This propelled the younger Kim to become the favorite to succeed his dad. In the years leading up to his father’s death, Kim Jong-un landed multiple positions within the government and earned many accolades. He served in a mid-level position in the National Defense Commission, he was awarded the Yŏngmyŏng-han Tongji (Brilliant Comrade) honors, and he was promoted to Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, which is the equivalent of a four-star general in the United States.
On December 17, 2011, Kim Jong-il passed away. A week later, his son was declared the “great successor to the revolutionary cause of Juche” and named the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army.
What Happens Next?
If Kim Jong-un is dead, only a dozen or so people know what is going on, says Dr. Bennett, because the government does not want it to be widely known.
“One of the problems he faces is, inside North Korea, Kim Jong-un is described as a god. And yet, having health problems or other related problems is not very god-like. The fact that Kim Il-sung died. The fact that Kim Jong-il died. It makes them look like they’re not really gods. So, this is troublesome for Kim. He doesn’t necessarily want it known inside the North. He wants to keep the number of people restricted.
If he is in a really serious health condition, what would be going on is someone else taking responsibility for making key decisions. But probably on a very limited basis, unless he is either dead or in a real coma because nobody is going to want to free up his decisions and then be held accountable for that if Kim were to recover.”
North Korea has been a critical component in the foreign policy file for President Donald Trump and his administration. For the U.S., Trump has championed a cordial relationship with Kim. For Pyongyang, notes Jack Kim, the regime has refrained from provoking the president and “returning to the old days of fire and fury.” In the event of his passing, what would change?
“Talks and outreach initiatives might be disrupted, but national intelligence as a geopolitical force would not change at all,” Patterson averred.
While some observers believe progress has been made under Kim’s rule, others think his dictatorship has resulted in the status quo – concentration camps, brutality, and hellacious conditions for the people. And it is difficult to fathom anything significantly improving under any successor – for now.
The End of the Kim Dynasty?
What would it take for North Korea to embrace democracy and freedom as its neighbor to the south has?
After Joseph Stalin died in 1953, it was hoped that the country would drift away from communist policies. Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, continued enacting many of the same Soviet measures that produced dreadful conditions for millions. But there was one improvement: The gradual tearing down of the gulags and the release of millions of prisoners over three decades. Despite his efforts, a lot of these labor camps were still standing, and it was not until 1987 that Mikhail Gorbachev dismantled the gulags and swept them into the dust bins of history.
Dr. Bennett noted that Kim Jong-un “has not been all that successful as a leader.” He may have had the right intentions of lifting North Korea from the ashes of destitution and devastation through a merchant class and diplomatic engagement. But this may have been mission impossible for a country that has only known militarism and misery. If Kim is dead, will senior officials choose to abandon the Kim dynasty and establish a new era? If this is the course of action, will it be a boon for a population propagandized that the Kim family is a deity? Or is it better for the people to be ruled by the devil they have known since 1948?
Read more from Andrew Moran.
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