North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has failed to appear for a key portion of Friday’s 69th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party founding, an event he has attended every year since taking power in 2011. His absence at the annual pilgrimage to the mausoleum that holds the remains of his grandfather and father in the capital of Pyongyang, which happened shortly after midnight on Friday, is already stirring a frenzied response from the media. While North Korea’s official KCNA usually posts a story of his visit with hours of its occurrence, the state media outlet did not list him among the attending officials.
The rumor mill surrounding Kim’s disappearance began churning in late September, after he had already been out of the public eye for three weeks. It was kicked off by a report from North Korea’s official state media that suggested the leader had a health issue, a state documentary said that “The wealth and prosperity of our socialism is thanks to the painstaking efforts of our marshal, who keeps lighting the path for the people, like the flicker of a flame, despite suffering discomfort,” according to Reuters.
What that discomfort is has been speculated about at some length. There are reports of ankle problems that required foreign doctors from Europe for surgery, possible gout due to the leader’s love of Swiss cheese, or just a general and undefined illness. Yet South Korean officials have also countered this illness narrative, with a South Korean official telling the Chosun Ilbo that, after having met with North Korean officials during a surprise meeting in Seoul, “something in his tone told me that Kim Jong-un had no serious problems with his health.”
Stories of a possible coup have naturally followed, as the young leader has attempted to consolidate power by purging those he believes to be too powerful, as a possible challenge to his new and unproven leadership. The country has become increasingly isolated this year ever since Kim Jong-un had his uncle Jang Song-thaek executed in a reported coup attempt, which left the country estranged from its only ally, China, and struggling without the economic and diplomatic lifeline Beijing traditionally provides.
Talk of a coup was further intensified after South Korea’s Defense Minister Han Min-koo told legislators that Kim was at a “certain place north of Pyongyang,” citing information from intelligence sources. He further said that “some media reports about Kim are true and some are false, but I believe that we get highly credible information from the intelligence unit of the defense ministry,” according to the Chosun Ilbo. Leaving Pyongyang for an extended period of time could be seen as a possible loss of control for Kim, with Professor Toshimitsu Shigemura from Waseda University in Tokyo (a respected scholar on North Korea) saying “if it is a military-backed coup, then the situation in Pyongyang will be very dangerous and I have heard reports that Kim has been moved out of the capital.”
There are also reports that Kim’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong might now be in de facto control of the country, according to the Seoul-based think tank North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (NKIS), taking charge of important government decisions. Little is known about this younger sibling, yet the NKIS report say the decision to put her in charge was made at a September 6 meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, shortly after Kim dropped out of the public eye. Keeping at least the titular leadership in the hands of the Kim family would provide some political stability if there was indeed a serious health issue with the new leader, and would seem to discount the idea of a coup, as at that point most immediate family members could be seen as a liability.
What is certain at this point is that North Korea has very little interest in providing the outside world with accurate information, as disinformation and erratic behavior have proven to be some of its best tools in keeping would-be adversaries at bay. The sheer volume of rumors and the amount of uncertainty, even from South Korean intelligence, underscores the fact that very little can be ascertained from even this latest missed public appearance.
Having missed this key anniversary however, the idea of a health problem precluding his attendance has to be elevated first, as it is the possibility most substantiated through both official and indirect sources. While the idea of a coup is exotic and enticing, it has the least evidence to support it. However, it is easy to troll through North Korea’s erratic behavior and find evidence to both support and contradict most narratives. In that case, official behavior may prove the most instructive.
North Korea by and large has been working to reach out to others in the region and improve its international image in the last few months. The secretary handling international relations at the North’s ruling Workers’ Party Kang Sok-ju went on a tour of five European countries in September in an attempt improve its isolation, and along the way unsuccessfully attempted to meet Chinese officials while transiting through Beijing, according to Yonhap News. Foreign Minster Ri Su-yong told the U.N. General Assembly on September 27 that North Korea was willing to work with that body on human rights, which was followed this week with two other ranking North Korean officials acknowledging the country’s political prison camps for the first time. And finally, a senior military delegation including North Korea’s believed to be the country’s second highest ranking official Hwang Pyong-so made a surprise visit on a day’s notice to Seoul on October 4, the purpose of which appears to have been to reassure South Korea that their leader’s health was not that serious.
Whether these diplomatic forays point to Kim’s poor health or a coup (or perhaps something else entirely) cannot be discerned at this point. They may simply be the start of another of North Korea’s traditional cycles of outreach followed by provocation. Still, they do make the leadership appear anxious about something, and Kim Jong-un’s absence is the main outlier at this point.