The Curious Case of the Maybe Dead Dictator

A story with a single source sent Twitter into a frenzy: Is Kim Jong Un brain-dead, or is he resting after a successful operation? Once again, no one really knows what’s happening in the elusive country of North Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waits before meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea on June 30, 2019.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waits before meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea on June 30, 2019. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

SEOUL—The usual torrent of propaganda praising the genius of North Korea’s leader was not flowing across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing North and South Korea a little past noon. Instead, sad music played, and excerpts of the leader’s biography were read before the news broke: North Korea’s leader, Kim Il Sung, had been shot dead. It was Nov. 16, 1986.

According to the North Korea-focused news site NK News, the message was followed by the lowering of the North Korean flag near the DMZ. The day after, on Nov. 17, South Korea was gripped by confusion—nothing could be verified, and no one knew exactly what had happened.

Experts had their theories, some more certain than others, and confusion continued until Nov. 18, when Kim, very much alive, was seen shaking hands with a Mongolian delegation visiting Pyongyang. The reports of his death had been, it turned out, greatly exaggerated.

A similar case of “he’s dead, she said” happened Monday night as a report from the defector-run activist media Daily NK mentioned that Kim Jong Un, the current leader of North Korea, was recovering after surgery. Then CNN, citing U.S. intelligence sources, reported that Kim was said to be in “grave danger” following surgery. Suddenly, reports of Kim being brain-dead, in a coma, or sick with COVID-19 spread through social media. 

But rather than taking a few days as in 1986, it took a few hours before calming down. “It’s a cabin fever thing. We’ve been trapped in this coronavirus news cycle for so long,” said Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“Most of us, not only the media but foreign-policy experts, we focus on North Korea, and there’s been little North Korea news in the past few months, so we hear this info that something is happening in Pyongyang, we jump on it,” he said. 

Whether or not the North Korean leader is dead, gravely ill, recovering, or perfectly fine is still unknown and most likely will be until anything official is released from Pyongyang. 

The only thing we can say for certain is that Kim failed to show up for “The Day of the Sun,” on April 15, which is the birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder and eternal president. And something like that is noteworthy since it’s arguably the nation’s single-most important day.

“It’s difficult to interpret North Korea, and they have certain patterns that create expectations in our part,” said John Delury, a professor of East Asian studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. “The pattern that we expect is that Kim Jong Un would appear on the anniversary of his grandfather’s birth, so when that didn’t happen, that kind of opened the door to a lot of speculation.” 

Delury is not much for speculating on what has happened or what will happen and awaits something more official from North Korea before making judgment calls. Officials in South Korea and China have both denied the reports of Kim being seriously ill.

“There has been nothing to confirm regarding the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s health as reported recently by some media, and so far, no specific trends have been identified inside North Korea,” Kang Min-seok, a spokesman from South Korea’s presidential office, said in a statement to international press.

But, as most North Korea watchers keep pointing out, the story is not completely baseless and should therefore not necessarily be discredited. Kim, who is believed to be 36 years old, is in famously bad shape, a heavy smoker, and has an estimated body mass index of 45, which would classify him as “extremely obese.” And the consensus seems to be that he did in fact undergo surgery, as reported by Daily NK.

“Given the information that’s coming out of not just Pyongyang but China and Seoul, it’s probable that Kim Jong Un did go through a medical procedure, but I don’t think he’s in a situation where he’s about to die or anything,” Go said.

Go mentioned that there has been no irregular troop movement and no spike in communications as an indication that nothing extraordinary is happening as of right now. But since most experts are wary of dismissing the story completely, what would happen if Kim were to die? 

“It would be a major shock to the system if he really died, and North Korea would go through a transition period. Not an unstable one, it’s going to be a stable transition period,” Go said.

There’s an implicit consensus in North Korea that only a Kim from the same dynasty can lead, and luckily, there’s a few to take over immediately, such as Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong. 

She has been more active lately, making public statements denouncing South Korea for example, and has shown that she can be a leader. Unfortunately, analysts say North Korea is not ready for a woman to lead quite yet.

“The ideal leader has to be a man because North Korea is a very chauvinistic society, so it implies that even though the likely candidate is the sister, it’ll be difficult. So I say she’ll be the real power behind the regime or country in the transition period until they find a more fitting face, which is most likely Kim Jong Chul, the hidden brother to Kim Jong Un,” Go said.

The fact is, no one can say anything conclusive yet. We can point to history, such as when Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un, died and it took North Korea two days to publicize it. So, silence could mean something, but it could also mean nothing. And the fact that we’re trying to read everything into almost nothing in terms of hard information also says something about us, Delury said.

“You know, it also reflects our view. We see North Korea as this highly unstable entity on the wrong side of history that shouldn’t be around anymore. And so, again, based on a fairly small amount of evidence, we start to ask, ‘Is this the end of North Korea?’” Delury said. “That’s sort of what we’re talking about.” 

Morten Soendergaard Larsen is a freelance journalist based in Seoul who writes about geopolitics.