The wires hummed with news that the North Korean dictator and “blessed leader” Kim Jong-un was critically ill following cardiovascular surgery. Early reporting based on unnamed U.S. and South Korean officials had “differing accounts” of Kim’s health. One source maintained that he was in critical condition after surgery; officials in President Trump’s administration weren’t “sure of his current health.” North Korea is not exactly an “open-kimono” nation, and with Kim’s status in doubt, so too is the balance of power. Will someone step into the power vacuum?
Wishful thinking or real potential for a change in leadership in North Korea? There are those who might benefit from the latter. For example, Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, holds some stature in the government and is “exercising significant influence within the government.” In a personal profile of Kim Yo-jong in The Guardian, Justin McCurry pointed out that she, as the North Korean “leader’s propagandist-in-chief,” is in the ascendancy. She holds several important titles and is considered the intellectual prowess underpinning her brother.
According to McCurry, Kim Yo-jong was recently reinstated to the North Korean Politburo and “has been a visible presence throughout the regime’s high-stakes diplomatic process with Washington and Seoul.” She has shown herself to be a party loyalist, held in high regard within the government. However Kim’s current health situation turns out, his sister will play a big part in the geopolitical future of North Korea, and the country’s worldview and aspirations will not change substantially.
Portly, a heavy smoker and drinker, Kim always has shrouded the topic of his health, which is known to only a small group within the North Korean government leadership. As for the imminent demise of Kim, we’ve heard these rumors before. Speculation rises when Kim does not attend a prominent event. Recently, he was absent from the celebration of his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s 108th birthday on April 15. This is significant for North Korea watchers because it is the country’s most important holiday.
The South Koreans, who are in the best position to know, cannot confirm the state of Kim’s health. Market Watch quoted the Associated Press, pointing out, “The presidential Blue House (counterpart to the U.S. White House) says it had no information about the rumors on Kim’s health.” But some within South Korea lend credence to the “Kim in ill health” narrative. Asia Times cites a report in Daily NK, out of Seoul, which has on staff North Korean defectors who remain close with family and friends in the North. That staff suggests that Kim did, in fact, undergo “urgent cardiovascular treatment” and that he was recuperating. What gives this reporting some credibility is that the Daily NK staff identified the site where the “treatment” was supposed to have taken place as the Hyangsan Hospital, which is generally “reserved for members of the Kim family.” Another detail lends credence: A doctor from Kim Man Yoo Hospital and others from Pyongyang Medical University, who are often associated with treating the North Korean leader, are doing so this time.
North Korean Goals
The political goals of North Korea are protected by the cadre of military officials that surround Kim, who have acted to ensure not only party loyalists but also Kim Jong-un loyalists surround him. The Dear Leader overhauled his top military leadership just before the summit meeting in June 2018 with President Trump, to make certain there would be no opposition to his friendship overtures to the United States.
Should the North Korean leader succumb, can those military leaders can be expected to carry on in the direction Kim has mapped out? As we have seen, despite three summit meetings with President Trump, there has been little indication of change in the actions of the repressive North Korean government.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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