The World

The Brief Wondrous Death of Kim Jong-un

The mystery surrounding the North Korean leader’s health showed just how little we understand what’s really happening in his country.

Kim Jong-un and senior officials touring a factory.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reappears in public in an image released on Saturday. KCNA/Latin America News Agency via Reuters

For weeks, like Schrödinger’s famous cat, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un occupied a liminal space between life and death. There were rumors that the coronavirus killed him, that he underwent heart surgery and was recuperating, that a Chinese doctor dispatched to treat him gave him the virus, and that a delayed medical procedure left him in a “vegetative state.” Or maybe nothing happened at all. The delicious but unprovable rumors were sparked on April 15, when the reclusive Kim failed to attend celebrations for the birthday of his grandfather—the country’s founder Kim Il-sung—the country’s biggest holiday. Then, when he ostensibly returned on Friday to cut the ribbon at a fertilizer plant, according to North Korea’s notoriously unreliable state media, it served as a reminder to just how little we know about Kim and his country: We see them with a level of detail that is about as distinct and satisfying as scrutinizing the moon with one’s naked eye.

North Korea is the world’s most closed nation. Basic pieces of knowledge, like its urbanization rate, the political views of its people, and even the size of its economy remain obscured. North Korea specialists quip that one should never trust any statistic from the country that has a decimal point. “Experienced Korea watchers are counseling ‘we don’t know, we have to wait for confirmation, so have another drink,’ ” said the former CIA analyst Bruce Klingner about Kim’s disappearance.

On issues as important as North Korea, however, we can’t just wait for the next round—we need to make assumptions. This desperately poor state of 25 million matters to the rest of the world because of the threat it poses to its neighbors and to the United States. What would happen to American and Chinese interests if Kim becomes incapacitated or dies, or if he returns to the spotlight stronger than ever? Would a stronger Kim launch nuclear weapons, or is there a greater risk that an unknown general would wrest control of the palaces of Pyongyang?

The best way to understand North Korea’s foreign policy is to assume three things. The first is that Pyongyang rationally pursues its interests: that for all the talk of it being “erratic,” the Kim regime is doing what it can to maintain and extend its power. The second is that, despite the tectonic shifts in U.S.-China relations, neither Beijing nor Washington want regime change in Pyongyang. The third is that our ignorance remains the exception, not the norm.

Seen from the level of an individual, North Korea is an abysmal failure. Hundreds of thousands of people starved to death in the mid-1990s, meat remains scarce, and the medical infrastructure is so shambolic that patients have been prescribed crystal meth for headaches. But the Kim family dynasty, begun by Kim Il-sung in 1948, has been stunningly successful in pursuing its interests. The three ruling Kims have survived the fall of their patron state the Soviet Union, outlasted 12 U.S. presidents, and—by taking power one year before the Chinese Communist Party, earned the dubious distinction of being the world’s longest-running one-party state. Interviews with and studies on the tens of thousands of defectors seem to show that many North Koreans still genuinely adore Kim Il-sung.

“North Korea’s alleged penchant for irrational and erratic behavior is illusionary,” writes professor Andrei Lankov, in his 2013 book The Real North Korea. The country’s leaders “are neither madmen nor ideological zealots, but rather remarkably efficient and cold-minded calculators, perhaps the best practitioners of Machiavellian politics that can be found in the modern world.”

So what does that mean for Schrödinger’s Kim? That if he is in good health, status quo is the safest assumption. The head of South Korea’s intelligence agency Suh Hoon said that Kim is likely healthy and that a fear of the coronavirus explained his disappearance. But what if he’s sick? It’s still possible—indeed, the public proof of his Friday reappearance comes from a North Korean video, which could have been doctored or shot several weeks ago. If he is or becomes incapacitated, his sister Kim Yo-jong would be the best bet to succeed him. The youngest child of North Korea’s second ruler Kim Jong-il, she possesses the holiest bloodline—a key asset in a nation that prides itself on its racial purity—and relevant experience.* Some analysts believe she currently manages Kim’s image and advises him on foreign and domestic policy. Or perhaps she would merely be the face of the regime, with military aides like Choe Ryong-hae making key decisions.

Status quo, that is, for the country’s leadership: Unpredictable testing of missiles or nuclear weapons is likely to resume. Why take the risk? Because Pyongyang seems to understand that neither Beijing nor Washington want it to fail.

Despite bordering 14 countries, China has not dealt with a refugee crisis in the modern era. A collapsed North Korea could not only send hundreds of thousands of starving North Koreans fleeing across the border, but it could jeopardize China’s efforts to contain the coronavirus—especially considering North Korean citizens will likely be at or near the end of the line for the eventual vaccination. With tensions high between the United States and China, Beijing does not want the roughly 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea any nearer to China’s northeast border, nor does it want the democratic U.S. ally increasing its influence in the northern part of the Korean peninsula—or among the millions of ethnically Korean Chinese living in northeast China.

As for the U.S., Trump still believes he can solve the threat North Korea and its military pose by improving his personal relationship with Kim. He has shown little interest in dissenting views. In September, a day after firing National Security Adviser John Bolton, Trump called him a “disaster” on North Korea, for demanding Kim relinquish his nuclear weapons. (Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his other advisers have gotten the message and toned down their criticism of the country.) While Trump abruptly walked away from the negotiating table during the two leaders’ second summit in Hanoi in February 2019, the leaders may still meet again in 2020, or early in Trump’s second term. Besides hurting Trump’s ego, a North Korea collapse would also facilitate the global spread of menacing weapons—not just Kim’s nukes, but also his stockpile of chemical, biological, and conventional weaponry—threatening the U.S. as many nonstate actors look to harm the country. This dynamic won’t necessarily change with a new U.S. president. Although North Korea called Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden a “rabid dog” who should be beaten to death, Biden said in January that, with preconditions, he could meet with Kim.

North Korea may be in the throes of regime change—or not. A famous quote attributed to Winston Churchill compared Soviet intrigue to two dogs fighting under a carpet: “an outsider only hears the growling” until “he sees the bones fly out from beneath.” All analysis of North Korea should be caveated with an awareness of just how little we know. Thae Yong-ho, a former high-ranking North Korean diplomat, said that in 2011 the country’s own foreign ministry wasn’t told about Kim Jong-il’s death until an hour before the official announcement. I once spoke to a source who worked for North Koreans in an office building in Pyongyang—he said that the secrecy prevented him from learning what happened on other floors of the office building. And that’s for those inside the North Korean system. Intelligence reports, sources in the region, and classified satellite imagery should provide the U.S. government with clearer insight: They at least have tools to see the bumps and ridges of the moon.  

For the rest of us, we should remember we’re doing this without a telescope.

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Correction, May 6, 2020: This article originally misstated that Kim Yo-jong was the youngest child of Kim Jong-un. She is the youngest child of Kim Jong-il.