The rumors about the health of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un went into overdrive this weekend with some media outlets outright claiming he has died, while others claim he is very sick and may even be brain-dead. Amid all the chatter, some insist the reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated. Among those is the South Korean government, which has not veered from its stance of insisting all is normal. “Our government position is firm,” Moon Chung-in, the top foreign policy adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, told CNN. “Kim Jong-un is alive and well. He has been staying in the Wonsan area since April 13. No suspicious movements have so far been detected.”
There had already been lots of rumors about Kim’s health because he was last seen in public on April 11. The rumors really started growing strong after he missed the April 15 celebration for the birthday of his grandfather and the founder of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung. Kim had not missed the event to mark the country’s most important holiday since he took power in late 2011.
On Monday a South Korean website reported that Kim was recovering from heart surgery, and CNN later reported that Washington was monitoring intelligence that suggested Kim was “in grave danger.” Then, on Saturday, a Japanese magazine said Kim was in a “vegetative state” after heart surgery earlier this month, while a Hong Kong news outlet cited a “very solid source” to say Kim had died. Reuters reported Saturday that China had dispatched a team that included medical experts to North Korea. All the talk led the celebrity news website TMZ to go outside of its usual coverage area and declare that Kim was “reportedly dead after botched heart surgery.”
A hint of his possible whereabouts also came over the weekend as satellite images appeared to show that a train that likely belongs to Kim has been parked on the country’s east coast since last week. The photos, released by a Washington-based North Korea monitoring project, reveal nothing about Kim’s health but suggest reports that he is outside Pyongyang could be accurate. “The train’s presence does not prove the whereabouts of the North Korean leader or indicate anything about his health but it does lend weight to reports that Kim is staying at an elite area on the country’s eastern coast,” the report by 38 North said.
As some news sources declare that Kim is dead or brain-dead, the rumors have also started swirling in North Korea, reports the Washington Post’s Anna Fifield. In Pyongyang, people are stocking up in preparation for what could come next as helicopters have been patrolling over the capital. And even as experts caution against reaching premature conclusions—after all, this isn’t the first time there are rumors about Kim’s health after a prolonged absence from public view—they also concede that there could be something there. Andrei Lankov, a historian of North Korea, for example, said that he thinks something is “definitely wrong” with Kim. Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute, a Seoul-based think tank, tells the Wall Street Journal that Pyongyang’s silence amid the persistent rumors appears to be particularly significant. “It is noteworthy that North Korea has neither confirmed nor released a statement laughing at the rumors,” he said. At the same time, some caution that his absence could have more to do with concerns about the coronavirus than anything else.
While rumors swirl, many have started talking about a possible successor. There is no obvious candidate to take over for Kim, who is believed to be 36. Some are raising the possibility that his only sister, Kim Yo Jong, could be the one to take over. She has recently been expanding her role in the government, which has helped to fuel the rumors, but at the same time some experts question whether a woman who is believed to be in her early 30s could ever take on the role, particularly considering there has not been a propaganda campaign around her that could help prop up her image among the general public. “Yo Jong’s role will likely be limited to a regent at most,” Yoo Ho-yeol, who teaches North Korean studies at Korea University, tells Bloomberg. “Not only the male-dominant leadership, but also ordinary people there would resist a female leader.”
For now, anything seems possible, and most reports are nothing but speculation. “His disappearance from public events matters, but it’s certainly not unprecedented, and we just don’t have enough information at this point to determine why,” Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official, said. “Could he be dead or gravely ill? Yes. Could it be something much more minor? Also yes.”