- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is FP's Asia editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington, D.C. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, the BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
On Saturday, a group of North Korean athletes convened for a peculiar meeting. While participating in the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, they gathered for "evening longing for respected Marshal Kim Jong Un." During the gathering, according to the North Korean state news agency KCNA, "the minds of all members of the delegation and players are running to him whom they long to see, awake or asleep."
They’re not the only ones wondering about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: He has not been seen in public since Sept. 3.
While Kim’s disappearance is not unprecedented, it’s certainly curious. "Kim Jong Il did periodically disappear from view, as has Kim Jong Un," said Mike Chinoy, senior fellow at the University of Southern California U.S.-China Institute and author of the 2008 book Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis. Since taking power in December 2011 following the death of his father Kim Jong Il, the younger Kim has had three prolonged absences: of 21 days, 24 days, and 18 days, in March 2012, June 2012, and January 2013, respectively. Today is Kim’s 26th day of absence, and because of the unyielding opacity of North Korean politics, it’s impossible to say where he is.
The simplest explanation is that he’s convalescing. The most popular rumor is that he has become afflicted with gout, which the Mayo Clinic describes as "sudden, severe attacks of pain, redness and tenderness in joints." Kim already appeared to be overweight when he came to power, and since then he appears to have put on a few pounds. Obesity contributes to gout. (Other health rumors abound. The British tabloid the Daily Mirror, for example, gleefully and source-lessly claimed Kim fell ill from eating too much cheese.)
Meanwhile, North Korean propagandists are using Kim’s absence to describe him as suffering for his people. On Sept. 25, Chosun Central TV, a North Korean station, aired a video entitled "Improving the Lives of the People," which shows a sweaty Kim engaging in physical labor despite what an official documentary has called Kim’s "discomfort," said Sung-Yoon Lee, a North Korea expert and a professor at Tufts University. The professor pointed out that on Sept. 23, the North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun mentioned Kim’s "arduous march during the dog days of the summer" — which is the same phrase used by North Korean media following Kim Jong Il’s stroke in August 2008.
If Kim is just resting, where might he be? "According to officially released information, Kim Jong Un spends much of his time at the family compounds in Wonsan and Kangdong," a city in the southeast and a suburban county of Pyongyang, respectively, said Curtis Melvin, a researcher with the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The family compound in Kangdong is where Kim Jong Il recovered from his stroke, Melvin said.
And if he’s not sick, what could be happening with Kim? Almost anything, really. Perhaps he’s afraid of assassination attempts, and is staying out of sight. Perhaps he’s under house arrest, and a cabal of generals is ruling North Korea. Perhaps he’s on vacation. It’s impossible to say.
In September 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping went missing for roughly two weeks, just a few months before his ascent to the top of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It’s still unclear what happened to him, though the former leader of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa, said he believed that Xi had hurt his back while swimming.
The labyrinthine upper levels of the CCP are less opaque than North Korea. We may never find out where Kim spent his September. But it does imply high intrigue in the palaces of Pyongyang. As North Korea watcher Daniel Pinkston told the Guardian, "Dictators are very suspicious of potential challengers, and of course, they are vulnerable when sedated."