Rumors fly over health of Kim Jong-un

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Rumors fly over health of Kim Jong-un

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks at a Politburo meeting on April 11, his most recent appearance in state media. [YONHAP]

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may be in grave danger after surgery, said a U.S. official Tuesday according to CNN, a day after a South Korean media outlet reported the dictator had undergone a cardiovascular operation.

CNN attributed its report to a U.S. official “with direct knowledge,” who said U.S. intelligence was monitoring news about Kim’s health.

Jennifer Jacobs, White House correspondent for Bloomberg, tweeted later on Tuesday that the U.S. Donald Trump administration received information that Kim had heart surgery and “if he’s alive, his health is poor.” It was unclear to U.S. officials whether Kim was dead or alive, she added.

Kim has not been seen in public since April 11, even missing one of North Korea’s most important holidays, the birthday of its founder and Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.

That was the first time since Kim Jong-un’s rise to power in 2011 that he failed to pay respects to Kim Il Sung at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun mausoleum. The country marked Kim Il Sung’s birthday, referred to as the Day of the Sun, in a subdued manner this year owing largely to the coronavirus pandemic.

Rumors of Kim Jong-un’s failing health circulated afterwards and were amplified when Daily NK, a South Korean online outlet focusing on North Korea news, published a report Monday saying Kim had undergone cardiovascular surgery on April 12.

The dictator received the surgery due to “obesity, prolific smoking habits, and ‘overwork’” at the Hyangsan Medical Center in North Pyongan Province, a facility that supposedly exists solely to care for the Kim family, the report said, citing an anonymous source.

South Korea’s presidential office said it had no information to verify these reports.

According to Yonhap News Agency, a South Korean government official in charge of inter-Korean affairs said there was “nothing special” to suggest Kim’s health was failing and that he appeared to be working as normal. Reuters quoted two more government sources in Seoul, both of whom denied the reports.

Conservative opposition lawmakers in South Korea, however, claimed there was something behind the reports. Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun of the United Future Party (UFP), who leads the National Assembly’s committee for foreign affairs and unification, told reporters Tuesday that he had it on the word of “the person with the most trustworthy information on the North” that Kim had undergone heart surgery. Yoon further claimed Pyongyang was in lockdown since a few days ago and that “something is definitely happening” in the country.

Ji Seong-ho, a defector recently elected as a proportional representative from the UFP’s sister party, also said he had heard Kim’s condition was “particularly not good” and that the dictator was facing a life-threatening situation.

An official at Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, the top inter-Korean body in the South, said guardedly that the CNN report appeared to merely show U.S. officials were verifying intelligence on Kim.

According to the Daily NK report, Kim’s operation was headed by a surgeon from Pyongyang’s Kim Man Yu Hospital, a medical center set up by an ethnic Korean from Japan who was known to be close to Kim Jong-un’s late father, Kim Jong-il. Top doctors from other hospitals in the country’s capital cared for the dictator but have since returned to Pyongyang after his condition improved, the report said.

But the report couldn’t be confirmed given that the health of the leader is a state secret in the North. When Kim visited Singapore for his first summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in June 2018, he used a mobile bathroom that the North Koreans brought with them to keep information about his health from leaking out to foreign intelligence.

Daily NK, a website run by North Korean defectors in the South, has put out questionable reports in the past, which mainstream media outlets in South Korea have cited, only to find out they were untrue.

This is also not the first time rumors have circulated about Kim, 36, being in ill health. In the fall of 2014, Kim was not seen in a public setting for almost 40 days, leading to gossip about his health. Kim later surfaced in a public setting supported by a cane, which South Korean intelligence later confirmed was owed to the removal of a cyst from his ankle.

Unfounded rumors followed the CNN report Tuesday, including one that alleged Kim was brain-dead.

If Kim was in a dangerous state, the impact of his absence would be great on the Communist state, which revolves around a personality cult of its leader.

North Korea does not have a clearly defined line of succession, a problem confounded by the fact that the powers of its state institutions are less bound to a constitution than they are to the whims of the Kim clan.

Choe Ryong-hae, the president of the Presidium of the North’s rubber-stamp Supreme People’s Assembly, is the nominal No. 2 figure in the regime, but his role has largely been ceremonial as well as reportedly reduced through changes made to the country’s Constitution last year.

Kim, while referred to as the supreme leader, holds the title of chairman of the State Affairs Commission, which emerged as the leading policy-making body in the country under his rule.

One figure with a recently elevated profile in the regime in Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, who was reinstated to her position as an alternate Politburo member of the country’s ruling Workers’ Party this month.

The younger Kim reportedly played a key part in crafting her brother’s public image and has acted as his surrogate on various diplomatic engagements with South Korea. She is the only daughter of former leader Kim Jong-il.

It is, however, also questionable whether North Korea - a very patriarchal society accustomed to the paternalistic propaganda promoting three generations of Kim men - would accept the leadership of a young and inexperienced woman.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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