After vanishing for two-weeks from all public appearances, the world is still without signs of Kim Jong Un’s whereabouts and rumor have grown regarding his poor health. Kim’s absence was first noticed on April 15 when he did not participate in the state celebration of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong Un’s absence at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun for his grandfather’s birthday was “unprecedented”, according to The Washington Post. However, experienced analysts on Korea call for caution when interpreting signals Kim Jong Un is in trouble.
Due to the secrecy and closed off nature of North Korea, people have continued to circulate rumors of all kinds. The lack of real information has led news outlets and social media posts attributing Kim’s uncertain conditions to multiple health issues. These range from a sprained ankle to being in a “vegetative state” after a heart-valve surgery gone wrong, according to The New York Times.
Initially, the Daily NK website reported that Kim underwent an operation on April 12 at a hospital near Mount Myohyang, The Washington Post declares. Speculation broadened once CNN reported an anonymous U.S. official had said the U.S. government was monitoring intelligence that suggested Kim’s grave condition post-surgery. Nevertheless, CNN states that U.S. officials immediately downplayed such declarations.
South Korean news media seemed to also disregard the veracity of these online rumors spreading to global networks. Instead, South Korean officials, along with the United States, looked for evidence about North Korea’s recent activities through spy satellites. They seemed to fear Mr. Kim’s unknown status could be a cover up for North Korea’s military activities. A Washington-based website specialized in North Korea, 38 North, found a train in Wondan, an coastal town in the country’s east where Mr. Kim had previously tested missiles. Some South Korean officials initially believed that Mr. Kim’s presence at a missile test could be a facade to turn down speculation, despite the uncertainty about his whereabouts.
It was not until recently, April 26, that South Korea’s chief policymakers on the North rebutted recent reports about Kim being in “grave danger”, The New York Times states. Both the Unification Minister and Chairman of the foreign committee of South Korea commented that the alleged heart surgery could not have taken place at the hospital mentioned in the report as it did not have the capacities for such operation. According to Reuters, however, they could not confirm anything when asked about the reports of Kim in Wonsan or the trip by a Chinese team of doctors apparently sent to assist in Kim’s recovery.
“Kim Jong Un is alive and well” said Moon Chung-in, a top foreign policy adviser to the South Korean President, to the U.S. news outlets. Such firm declarations have provided more clarity on the issue. Even U.S. officials appear to be supporting the South Korean government’s statements regarding Kim’s condition. Although this is not the first time Mr. Kim has disappeared from the public eye amid rumors of bad health, U.S. officials are resisting making final calls as they have been proved wrong in the past.
The main skeptics of the rumors on Mr. Kim are North Korean defectors. From their first-hand experience living within this secretive country, former officials and journalists do not think possible Mr. Kim’ trusted aides and office members would have dared to leak information regarding his health. Although no one expects North Korea to make official announcements regarding Kim’s health based on past cases, his disappearance has indeed caused furor. The uncertainty has raised questions of North Korea’s future without its emblematic leader, prevailing mainly in U.S. and South Korea’s foreign policies.