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Where Is Kim Jong Un?

South Korea is adamant that Kim is alive, and Trump hints that he knows more than he’s allowed to say.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
People wearing face masks walk across a street before the Ryugyong hotel in Pyongyang on April 15.
People wearing face masks walk across a street before the Ryugyong hotel in Pyongyang on April 15. Kim Won Jin / AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: North Korea stalls for time as the world speculates about Kim Jong Un's health, the White House announces a ramp-up in coronavirus testing, and Venezuela names a new oil minister.

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N. Korea Publishes Letter, But No Public Appearance Yet

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: North Korea stalls for time as the world speculates about Kim Jong Un’s health, the White House announces a ramp-up in coronavirus testing, and Venezuela names a new oil minister.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

N. Korea Publishes Letter, But No Public Appearance Yet

After weeks without an appearance, North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un has materialized—on paper at least.

In a sign that North Korea is feeling the pressure to provide some proof of life, North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) published a letter dated April 27 from Kim Jong Un to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa sending greetings for South Africa’s Freedom Day.

Although such letters are a common diplomatic nicety, it would be somewhat unusual for Kim to send such a letter to South Africa’s leader: For the past 16 years, North Korea’s No. 2, the president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly—currently Choe Ryong Hae—has traditionally sent greetings for South Africa’s Freedom Day.

South Korea has repeatedly held firm that Kim is in no danger. Minister for Unification Kim Yeon Chul said on Monday that South Korea has “enough intelligence to confidently say that there are no unusual developments” in North Korea.

During Monday’s White House briefing, U.S. President Donald Trump renewed his good wishes to Kim, adding that he may be more aware of Kim’s status than he let on, “I hope he’s fine. I do know how he’s doing relatively speaking. We will see—you’ll probably be hearing in the not too distant future,” Trump said.

What’s coming next? In Foreign Policy, Duyeon Kim and Leif-Eric Easley explore the different scenarios, from a full return to normal to a leadership vacuum. Either way, the authors say this episode “can serve as a wake-up call to the U.S.-South Korea alliance on the need for close and advance coordination on scenarios surrounding the health of the North Korean leader.”

It’s also a reality check on the frailty of North Korea’s political system, as Oriana Skylar Mastro points out in FP, “Since World War II, no family dictatorship has ever managed to pass power for a third time.”

If things fall apart in the north, defectors could play a key role in the Korean Peninsula’s future. Melissa Chan profiles the former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho, who defected to South Korea after serving Pyongyang for decades and was recently elected to the legislature in Seoul. “If North Korea ever reconciles with its neighbor—whether through collapse or diplomacy—it may be trailblazers like Thae who play a key role in any rapprochement,” she writes.

What We’re Following Today

White House plans to partner with private companies to increase testing. The White House released plans to expand coronavirus testing so that 2 percent of Americans across 50 states (roughly 6.5 million people) could receive a test. To date, approximately 17,000 out of every 1 million inhabitants have been tested in the United States—just over half the rate in Spain and Italy.

According to the CDC, the daily number of tests in the United States in the past week has hovered around 15,000; researchers at the Harvard Global Health Institute estimate that a testing rate of 500,000 per day would be the “bare minimum” in order to expect a return to normal economic activity.

It’s unclear whether the White House plan, which involves a partnership with major pharmaceutical retailers like CVS and Walgreens, will reach that figure. CVS said it hoped to conduct 1.5 million tests per month, and Walgreens said it would aim for 800,000 tests per month. In a further sign that the Trump administration wants to hand off responsibility for the U.S. epidemic to states and the private sector, it said that contact tracing methods should be developed by the states with the federal government offering “technical assistance.” 

U.S. Africa Command admits to killing civilians in Somalia. On Monday, a U.S. Africa Command internal investigation found that a military airstrike it carried out in February of 2019 killed two civilians and injured three more. It is only the second time Africom has admitted to killing civilians through one of its airstrikes. The U.S. military is increasingly reliant on airstrikes in its operations in Somalia; more attacks have been launched in the past 4 months than in the entire 8 years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

In May 2019, Amanda Sperber investigated the civilian casualties resulting from Africom strikes. Writing in FP, she noted that three civilians had reportedly been killed and that Africom appeared “to have done little to verify details about the three men, raising the possibility that others killed in U.S. strikes and labeled as terrorists might also have been innocent victims.”

Amnesty International has long been critical of U.S. operations in Somalia and has highlighted more U.S. airstrikes that it alleges led to civilian deaths. “We’ve documented case after case in the USA’s escalating air war on Somalia, where the Africom thinks it can simply smear its civilian victims as ‘terrorists,’ no questions asked,” said Deprose Muchena of Amnesty International. “This is unconscionable; the US military must change course and pursue truth and accountability in these cases, in line with its obligations under international humanitarian law.”

Prague mayor under police protection after suspected poisoning plot. Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib has been given 24-hour police protection after a report in Czech magazine Respekt said the mayor was the subject of a Russian poisoning plot. The mayor had recently spoken positively of the Prague council’s decision to rename the square in front of the Russian embassy after Boris Nemtsov, the murdered Russian dissident. Czech authorities have not confirmed that the details reported in Respekt are the reason why Hrib is under increased protection. Hrib himself has also remained quiet. “The police protection was simply given to me by the Czech police. By their decision, I am not able to comment on the reasons,” he said.

Keep an Eye On

Venezuela appoints new oil minister. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is shaking up the country’s oil leadership, as record-low prices cut deeper into an already crippled oil production network. Tareck El Aissami, a former vice president who had most recently served as minister of industry and national production will take over as oil minister. El Aissami replaces Gen. Manuel Quevedo who had simultaneously headed up the state oil company, PDVSA. Asdrubal Chavez, a cousin of the deceased former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, has been named interim president of PDVSA. In March, El Aissami was included in a U.S. Justice Department indictment for violating U.S. sanctions and for facilitating drug trafficking.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Carlos Vecchio, the U.S.-recognized ambassador to the United States—representing Juan Guaido’s interim government—argues that the Maduro regime had forced the country into economic self-isolation long before the coronavirus hit. “By forcibly isolating Venezuelans, Maduro’s policies—which have led to a collapsed economy and a depleted health care system—are designed to suppress Venezuelans’ freedoms in order to allow his regime to hold onto power,” he argues.

Oil prices slide again. Oil could be heading for calamity again as one of the funds responsible for April’s rout on May oil futures said it would begin selling its June futures. To head off another storage capacity panic, JPMorgan Chase warned that a suspension of U.S. production equivalent to 1 million barrels per day would have to be put in place in May.

Odds and Ends 

Russia celebrates Putin—and Stalin. A new church in Moscow commemorating Russia’s victory in World War II will open at the beginning of May featuring eye-catching mosaics celebrating the annexation of Crimea that includes Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials. Another mosaic will feature a group of soldiers holding up a picture of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during a 1945 victory parade—Stalin’s first appearance in a state building since the 1960s. Putin himself has attempted to play down his inclusion in the cathedral art, and his spokesman said, “When he was told about this, he smiled and said: ‘Someday our thankful descendants will appreciate our merits, but it’s too early to do so now.’”

Doctors without trousers. A group of doctors in Germany have started a protest on social media to draw attention to shortages in personal protective equipment. With mass protests ruled out due to lockdown measures, the doctors are grabbing attention by posing naked in their offices, with artful poses to circumvent anti-nudity algorithms. “The nudity is a symbol of how vulnerable we are without protection,” Ruben Bernau, one of the doctors participating in the protest, said.

That’s it for today. 

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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