The Day of the Sun — the holiday celebrating Kim Jong-un’s late grandfather, Kim Il Sung — has long been the most important date on North Korea’s political calendar. This year, the supreme leader failed to show.
Kim Jong-un’s absence from an event he has often used to signal strength at home and abroad sparked a global search for explanations. Two weeks later, the whereabouts of the 36-year-old leader has become one of the world’s great mysteries, fed by internet rumours, satellite photos and anonymously sourced reports.
Here are some possible scenarios being discussed:
Recovering from surgery
The first credible report that something was wrong with Mr Kim was also among the least alarming. The Daily NK, a Seoul-based news outlet that gathers information from people inside North Korea, reported on 20 April that Kim underwent a “cardiovascular surgical procedure” the previous week and was now mostly recovered.
The report, attributed to a single unidentified person, did offer several specific details, including that Mr Kim was treated at the Hyangsan Medical Centre on the outskirts of Pyongyang. While no governments have verified the report, South Korean officials later said that Mr Kim was believed to be conducting “normal activities” in a rural part of the country assisted by close aides, actions that could be consistent with the recovery explanation.
“Kim Jong-un is alive and well,” Moon Chung-in, a special adviser to South Korea’s president, told Fox News on Sunday. Moon, however, added that Mr Kim had been staying in the coastal resort area of Wonsan since 13 April, something that would clash with the Daily NK account.
In ‘grave danger’
Hours after the Daily NK article, CNN provided a more worrying assessment of Mr Kim’s health, reporting that the US was monitoring intelligence that suggested he was in “grave danger” after surgery. Bloomberg News separately reported that US officials were told that Mr Kim was in critical condition, but were unsure of his current status.
While Donald Trump said on Thursday that he believed the CNN report was “incorrect” and based on “old documents”, rumours about Mr Kim’s deteriorating condition only accelerated on social media. On Saturday, Reuters reported that the Chinese Communist Party’s International Department dispatched a team including medical experts to North Korea on Thursday to advise on Mr Kim. The news service, which cited three people familiar with the situation, said it was unclear what the delegation signalled about Mr Kim’s health.
China’s foreign ministry, which is separate from the International Department, said only that it had sent reagents for coronavirus testing to North Korea. “That is not the same as a medical team,” ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told reporters Monday in Beijing.
On Monday, Mr Trump said at a White House news conference that he knew Mr Kim’s condition, but “can’t talk about it right now”. The president added that “nobody knows” were Mr Kim is.
Just social distancing
The Chinese medical team could also point to what’s now a more common health concern: Covid-19. Although North Korea has disclosed no infections, the country has quarantined thousands of people and the US’s top general in South Korea has said he was “fairly certain” the country has cases. China has been sending experts around the world to help combat the pandemic that began on its soil.
The Seoul-based JoongAng Daily newspaper reported on Monday that the North Korean leader was in self-quarantine. The paper, citing an unidentified person in China, said that Mr Kim was monitoring his health after one of his bodyguards was confirmed with the coronavirus infection. That’s why China sent some 50 medical staff to North Korea, the newspaper said.
Days before Mr Kim failed to show up for holiday events, his Workers’ Party of Korea issued social-distancing orders on 11 April requiring members to refrain from gatherings of more than three people, the Hankook Ilbo newspaper reported on Tuesday. The report, which was attributed to an unidentified person familiar with the matter, said Mr Kim may have missed the events to avoid the disease.
Hurt in military drills
The search for Mr Kim has repeatedly led back to the eastern tourist enclave of Wonsan, the site of a palatial family compound and frequent missile tests. Satellite photos analysed by the website 38 North showed that a train resembling the armoured one used by North Korea’s leaders was parked at the local railway station last week.
The eastern coastal area saw a burst of military activity, including cruise missile tests and fighter jet manoeuvres, on 14 April — the day before Mr Kim failed to show up for Day of the Sun events about 140 miles to the west in Pyongyang. Ri Jong Ho, a high-profile North Korean defector who now lives in the US, told the Seoul-based DongA Daily newspaper that Mr Kim may have been injured in the exercises.
Still, it would be unusual for North Korean military officials to allow their top leader to get close enough to the action to get hurt. Also, the satellite photos don’t confirm the train’s presence in the area until 21 April. Images from 15 April show no train.
Some such as Yoon Sang-hyun, a South Korean politician who heads a committee on inter-Korean relations, have wondered whether Mr Kim devised the disappearance as a way to draw attention to the regime. Mr Yoon speculated that the North Korean leader would have to show up in public in the next couple of weeks to avoid a destabilising debate about his grip on power and potential successors.
“If he doesn’t, it’s a real big issue,” Mr Yoon told reporters on Monday, according to the DongA Daily. “Kim is apparently not running the country as he would normally do now.”
There’s also a good chance the world may never get a satisfying explanation. Mr Kim similarly vanished from state media for six weeks in 2014, prompting speculation that he had been sidelined by gout, an ankle injury or was even overthrown in a coup. He subsequently showed up walking with a cane. No reason for his absence has ever been given.
The Washington Post
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