Rumors are swirling that North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un is either at death’s door or waiting out COVID-19.
The communist dictator’s absence from the public eye is leading to widespread speculation about his condition following stories that he underwent a heart procedure.
Any sudden political change in the hermit kingdom is sure to trigger a power struggle.
When the 36-year-old dictator failed to show up two weeks ago to celebrate his late grandfather, rumors started flying. It was the first time ever that Kim Jong Un missed the country’s most important political date.
Hints that something might be amiss began April 20th, when a leading South Korean group claimed that Kim was recovering from a “cardiovascular surgical procedure”.
Kim is an overweight chain smoker and he’s believed to suffer from heart disease like his father and grandfather.
On Monday, at the White House, President Trump claimed he was aware of Kim’s situation.
“I can’t tell you exactly. Yes, I do have a very good idea, but I can’t talk about it now. I just wish him well,” the president said.
Kim was last seen on April 11th.
Twelve days later, satellite pictures showed a train likely belonging to the North Korean leader was parked near one of the family’s luxury compounds.
South Korean intelligence reports he’s staying outside the capital, perhaps in isolation due to coronavirus.
But no one is sure.
“North Korea is the hardest target with the intelligence professionals because it is such a closed society and of course, Kim Jong Un’s health, his location, everything about him, is a state secret,” David Maxwell with Foundation for Defense of Democracies told CBN News.
If something were to happen to him, experts point to Kim Yo-Jong, Kim’s younger sister, described as one of his most trusted advisers, as a possible successor.
The 37-year-old’s political influence has grown in recent years as she has played key roles in US-North Korean relations, appearing alongside her brother at major events inside the isolated country, including at missile tests and riding horses.
“We know from talking to defectors that she is the one person that he trusts the most inside North Korea,” Maxwell said. “In March, for the first time, she issued official statements in her name, so it looks like she may be in a position where she’s been groomed to succeed him.”
The Kim family bloodline has ruled the hermit kingdom for three generations. All the family dictators have been men.
As potentially the first female leader, it’s unclear whether Kim Yo-Jong has what it takes to rule a country highly dominated by conservative males.
“The problem there is that North Korea’s pretty reactionary, quite honestly, when it comes to gender norms,” said Robert Kelly, a political analyst at Busan National University in Seoul, South Korea. “So there’s a lot of discussion about whether or not the old guard in North Korea would accept the ascension of a female. But she is a blood relative. And the Kim family, the sort of monarchic feudal line of the Kim family, is a central part of North Korean mythology. So she’s the obvious choice barring the gender issue.”
Another name making the rounds is Kim Pyong Il, the son of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung.
The 65-year-old spent nearly four decades serving in various foreign diplomatic posts before returning to North Korea last year.
Still, any sudden changes could create a power vacuum.
Experts say North Korea’s powerful military would step in immediately to prevent that, taking center stage until a leader is selected by the government.
While rumors continue to circulate outside of North Korea, inside the country, it’s life as usual.
The streets of the capital Pyongyang teeming with people this week, many wearing masks as the country closed off its borders in late January due to coronavirus.