The Slatest

Interpreting Kim Jong-un’s Disappearance From Public View

South Korean Prime Minister Jung Hong-won, left, with top North Korean official Hwang Pyong-so, right, at the Asian Games in South Korea this weekend.

Photo by Jason Reed/Reuters

It’s been more than a month since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been seen in public, and in addition to rumors that he is suffering from gout, there’s been speculation that he is involved in a power struggle. This Vice report quotes a prominent defector who believes that Kim is being challenged by an influential bureaucratic group:

According to Jang — a former counterintelligence official and poet laureate under Kim Jong-il — members of the government’s Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), a powerful group of officials that once reported only to Kim Jong-il, have stopped taking orders from his son, Kim Jong-un. The OGD, Jang says, has effectively taken control of the country, and a conflict is simmering between factions that want to maintain absolute control over the economy and others seeking to gain wealth through foreign trade and a slightly more open market.

As Reuters writes, though, speculation about coups against North Korea’s ruling family has a long history—but they’re still in charge after 66 years and three generations of rule.

There have long been rumors of a coup attempt in 1992 by Soviet-trained North Korean army officers, and later, of a planned coup by disgruntled and hungry army units in the then famine-stricken northeast of the country in 1995. In 1998 a reported shoot-out between police and soldiers led to a curfew in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-il dropped off the grid for a while, the skirmish was taken to have been a direct challenge to his rule and a coup attempt. But then he reappeared and the regime denied the firefight. In the last few years of Kim Jong-il’s reign we got coup rumor after coup rumor as his health began to fail and he disappeared from the spotlight at various times.

No sooner had Kim2 gone and Kim3 taken his place than coup rumors started circulating again. Most dramatically came accusations that Jang Song-thaek, his uncle, had been coup plotting. He was executed.

A North Korean delegation visited South Korea this weekend in what was described as an “unprecedented” move; the North Korean group was led by Hwang Pyong-so, who is considered the second-most powerful figure in the country.