North Korea

Kim Jong Un, Are You There?

By Andrej Mrevlje |

This is part two of my reflections on the recent rumors coming out of North Korea, a nation that can no longer be called the hermit country. Ten years ago, before Kim Jong Un was in power, North Korea could still be described as a dark and isolated place. However, its citizens today are skillful hackers. Once obedient and under-nourished, people are now smuggling in movies, news, and software on USB flash drives. Educated in Switzerland, the young despot has turned Pyongyang into an urban city, and the North Korean middle class is growing, but only 0.1 percent of the population is running the country. Thanks to the increased number of defectors and dissidents, and the growing more significant number of foreigners and better satellites, we now know much more about the country. We know enough to be able to say that if there were a change in leadership if Kim Jong Un has died, it would be a disaster for North Korea.

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Daily NK, an online news organization that publishes news allegedly obtained from inside North Korea, rang the alarm on April 20. The reason why Kim Jong Un disappeared from public life was that he was recovering from a “cardiovascular procedure”, they wrote. The unspecified surgery apparently prevented the 36- year-old dictator from taking part in the pompous ceremony on the birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, the dictator’s grandfather and founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Each year on April 15, the entire nation commemorates the Day of the Sun, thanking their beloved leader Kim Il Sung for light and warmth. As the masses worship the sainthood of the defunct leader, the occasion serves as a good time to scrutinize in detail the smallest possible signs that might indicate any forthcoming political and power turnovers. Moreover, if the supreme leader is missing at such an important ceremony, the significance is as grave as if the whole Universe stopped turning. There would be no more light, and the masses would gasp in the darkness. They would expect new instructions and commands. An explanation would be given for why the sun stopped shining. But this time, there was nothing. This happened before in 2014, when Kim Jong Un disappeared for six weeks, offering only a vague explanation when he walked back on the scene with a walking stick in hand.

This time, the Daily NK dispatch created a storm, which was followed by reports saying that the young Kim had died in surgery. First, there was news that a North Korean surgeon had trembled when he was informed that he had to operate on the great leader. Apparently, he screwed up the procedure and then fled the country. Few sources reported the Chinese sending to Pyongyang a team of doctors, but they arrived too late, or there were too many. Some reports mentioned that there were 50, which could mean that they were epidemiologists coming to help with Coronavirus and not the surgeons. The Chinese story contradicted the news coming out of South Korea, which claimed that Kim was doing well. But the bad news persisted, with plenty of self-described Asian experts quoting unknown sources, claiming that Kim was brain-dead, reduced to a vegetative state, or otherwise incapacitated. All kinds of pundits were offering up their opinions and interpretations based on information from nameless sources. Soon, the unconfirmed death triggered a new question: who would replace Kim III? The overwhelming majority of answers offered said the North Koreans had not yet decided. This new unknown opened up fresh competition among the experts, all who knew nothing concrete. Besides speculations on the ongoing power struggle and possible new political scenarios, a variety of conspiracy theories soon emerged. 

On May first, another important date within the socialist liturgy, Kim Jong Un, reappeared. He chose to emerge at a new fertilizer plant, setting a scene reminiscent of The Truman Show. Apparently the ongoing construction had been completed in a hurry using cardboard and wooden material as props to cover up the unfinished construction. The plant looked like a plaster model; it was not in use–there were no workers, no technicians to be seen on the ground. Kim Jong Un got out of the limo and, limping slightly, walked towards the stage. He was followed in the distance (not because of the Coronavirus but as a sign of respect to the leader) by his closest collaborators, including his sister. Facing the stage was the usual crowd, greeting, waving, and screaming incomprehensible words of adoration to the young leader. Although everyone watching was wearing a mask, their voices were clear and strong instead of muffled. But Kim Jong Un and his close collaborators were not wearing masks. His bodyguards and driver wore them. And as I said, the masses had them. Was this the right amount of messages to convince the skeptics in good health of the beloved leader? 

Despite the 11 minutes of footage released by the North Korean news agency showing Kim Jong Un, there have been dissident voices claiming that the person in the video is not Kim Jong Un, but his body double. I watched the footage three times. It is true that there is no single close-up shot in which Kim Jong Un can be seen together with the masked masses, celebrating him and the inauguration. But the cameras showed long sequences of Kim III, his sister Kim Yo Jong, and other leaders. I first noticed that Yo Jong was placed two seats away from her brother. And yet, she was most often mentioned as the plausible successor to the dictator. Was that the reason brother decided to distance her a bit? If the plan had been to cover up the absence of Kim III by replacing him with a body double, the masks needed because of the pandemic would have been the perfect opportunity to introduce a doppelganger. No one would know with certainty if the person beneath the mask was the real Kim III or not. Nobody. One could still look at his body, which I did. Viewing archival footage and photos from 2011, when the 27-year-old son of the dictator was set on the throne, to the day I am writing this, it is obvious that in the past nine years, Kim III grew obese, a condition that often leads to respiratory issues. We also know that Kim III has serious heart and diabetes issues and that he is a chain smoker and a heavy drinker. All of those factors would be enough to justify strict isolation from the COVID-19 contaminated world. Is this what is happening now? We know that Kim Jong Un is a paranoid person, that he fears assassination and therefore changes his residences permanently. In a recent account, more than 100 different villas and super protected residences have been listed as Kim Jong Un property. In Wonsan, a Pacific coastal area and North Korean paradise with lovely white sand beaches that Donald Trump suggested Kim develop into a money-making summer resort, the Kim Dynasty have many of their villas, pools, a sheltered harbor, train station, and a nearby private airport. Recently, Kim III built yet another huge villa in the resort and bought a couple of super luxurious yachts. 

As Anna Fifield writes in her biography of Kim Jong Un:

Wonsan is where North Korea’s 0.1 percent spend their summers. It’s their Martha’s Vineyard, their Monte Carlo. They swim in the sea or relax in the pools at their beachfront villas. They suck the delectable meat from fur-covered claws of the prized local hairy crab and scoop the rich roe from inside it. They repair to nearby Lake Sijung, where the 107-degree mud pool is said to relieve fatigue and erase wrinkles, making a tired old cadre feel instantly refreshed. This area is especially beloved by the most elite of the elites: the Kim family, which has controlled North Korea for more than seven decades. It was here that a young anti-imperialist fighter with the nom de guerre of Kim Il Sung landed when he returned home to Korea in 1945 after Japan had been defeated in World War II and ejected from the peninsula. It was here that Kim Jong Il, just four years old when the war ended, hid out while his father maneuvered to become the leader of the newly created North Korea. This half of the peninsula would be backed by the communist Soviet Union and China, while the southern half would be supported by the democratic United States. And it was here that a little boy called Kim Jong Un spent the long, lazy summers of his childhood, frolicking on the beaches and zooming over the waves on a banana boat.

Like a spoiled child, Kim Jong Un is in the company of two other people I have studied closely: Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi– all spoiled and rich with paranoid personalities. What is useful to observe for our story is that all three of them are terrified of bacterias. Aware that microbes, bacterias, and viruses are the only organisms that do not fear them, the three powerful, invincible dictators are scared to death of them. My non-scientific hypothesis, after I watched all the available material, is that Kim Jong Un is in hiding because of Covid-19. The fact that the crowds getting close to him–while still a safe distance away–were wearing masks, could be a confirmation of this. In fact, there are now reports debunking the long denial of the Coronavirus outbreak in North Korea, and more news reports coming out on the spread of the virus in the country. 

The most recent news from Pyongyang tells us about the removal of big portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the two deceased dictators. As you may have read in NK News, they have been put away because of the renovations in preparation for the military parade in October. NK News is a  reliable source, and yet October is too far away for such a small scale of the renovation. However, there no explicit speculations on the removal of the pictures. Could it be to make space for a third picture, one of Kim Jong Un? The North Koreans only put portraits up when the subject is dead. But what if, as I think, Kim Jong Un is not dead?  Is he planning to replace the portraits of his grandfather and father around the country with his own? It sounds crazy and impossible, even for North Korea.  And yet, the agile looks of the young dictator on May first, the reports confirming the continuation of important infrastructure projects, including the speeding production of intercontinental ballistic missiles, proves that Kim Jong Un might be ready for new moves. Often called the only living Machiavelli, Kim III might be using his absence to scrutinize the reactions and behavior of his entourage, especially the army generals. He might be watching them in order to decide whether he will use them or just ditch them, the way he removed and killed his uncle Jang Song Thaek once he no longer needed him. Or, it could be that Kim Jong Un is seriously ill for real, and somebody else is already pulling the strings? 

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