North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has not been seen in public since Sept. 3. The state propaganda machine that normally meticulously documents his presence at rallies, parades, party meetings, and lubricant factories has been conspicuously silent. This naturally has led to rampant speculation about what he’s up to.
More dramatically, there are reports that he may be under house arrest, perhaps following a military coup. One analyst says his influential sister, Kim Yo-jong, may now be running the country. Maybe the Kim dynasty has fallen completely. (My former colleague Isaac Stone Fish has a good explanation for why this wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing.) As the Washington Post’s Terrence McCoy points out, the speculation is only going to grow if Kim doesn’t show up at celebrations marking the anniversary of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party on Friday.
As always, one must remember the golden rule of North Korea news: Anyone can say absolutely anything about the hermit kingdom because nothing can be verified. Most of these rumors originate as dubiously sourced reports from South Korean media outlets, and Western outlets are happy to reprint them. It’s not as if there’s any way to check their veracity, after all. When the phrase “Tabloid reports suggest an obsession with Swiss emmental cheese” starts appearing in an international politics story, it’s probably time for everyone to take a deep breath.
It’s also worth noting that it’s not unprecedented for North Korean public figures to disappear from view for a while. There was similar health speculation about Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, when he dropped off the map for a few weeks in 2008. He would go on to rule the country for another three years. Kim’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, wasn’t seen for about 50 days in 2012 with no explanation.
Obviously, it’s a different matter entirely for the leader himself, and a young man at that, to go missing for this amount of time without explanation.
Kim’s absence also comes at a critical moment. North Korea sent a surprising and unprecedented high-profile delegation, including Kim’s two closest aides, to Seoul last weekend, and the two sides have agreed to resume reconciliation talks. This is a major shift after months of aggressive rhetoric from the North Korean side.
This resumption of talks could be a sign that something serious has changed behind the scenes in Pyongyang. Or, less excitingly, as unnamed U.S. officials suggest to Reuters, it could simply be “diplomatic tactics by Pyongyang, aimed at dividing and weakening international pressure over its nuclear weapons program and human rights record as well as propaganda for domestic consumption.”
North Korea’s modus operandi for decades now has been to alternate between periods of aggressive rhetoric and weapons tests, and periods of reconciliation and diplomacy aimed at securing foreign aid and political concessions.
It seems more likely to me that some sort of gamesmanship is afoot than that Kim’s subordinates have overthrown him and not told anyone about it. But again, it’s North Korea, so I have no way to be sure and you have no way to prove me wrong.