When Kim Jong Un attended the opening ceremony of a fertilizer factory after disappearing for nearly three weeks, he disproved rumors that he was incapacitated — or dead. However, his reappearance does not mean the crisis is over and the hermit kingdom goes back to normalcy. In fact, the episode implies that a change in leadership in North Korea may come sooner than expected.
Why did Kim disappear? Some analysts assert that he intentionally secluded himself to whip the mass media into a frenzy and fuel rumors about his whereabouts. But for a shrewd leader, it makes no sense to employ this tactic. Even if Americans’ attention was drawn to Kim by his absence from the public view, and by the several rounds of missile launch in the past few months, what would that achieve in real terms? Washington is not about to reconsider lifting sanctions imposed on North Korea just because of his disappearance.
Kim’s disappearance was more likely a forced move rather than a voluntary one. Maybe it was due to COVID-19; Kim might have had to go under quarantine for some time if, say, one of his aides got sick. But quarantine does not necessarily equal a disappearance, as modern information technology would allow Kim to pose and speak on the TV or the internet from anywhere — except in an ICU. Unlike his father, who liked to direct movies from behind cameras, Kim Jong Un is willing to appear in front of cameras.
Excluding the above possibilities, the most likely reason for Kim’s absence is poor health.
Kim has been believed to suffer from gout for years. When it breaks out at the joints of the feet, gout makes walking extremely painful. Kim might have suffered from gout in 2014, when he disappeared for 40 days and reappeared with a cane in hand. But as people now know about this after the 2014 incident, a flare-up of gout would not have prevented Kim from appearing on TV walking around with a cane to assist him again.
It’s possible Kim may have suffered from a cardiovascular disease, as the most persistent rumors during this recent absence suggested. He might have had a heart attack and an emergency surgery soon afterward, with one or more stents put into his artery. As such an operation is minimally invasive, a person can recover within two to four weeks.
Cardiovascular or related diseases, if that is indeed the reason for his seclusion, would haunt Kim for the rest of his life, even if he decides to quit smoking and lose weight through regular physical exercise. As a dictator, Kim has to face enormous mental pressure head-on. Having purged all political opponents, he has grabbed all power into his own hands. Generally speaking, the more power a leader has, the more responsibility he or she has to take. As the supreme leader of North Korea, Kim has to make high-stake decisions and take complete responsibility on all major issues. Although he will not be held accountable in North Korea for what he does, the survival of the regime, his family, and even himself is contingent on his decisions.
Unfortunately, the current situation is extremely grim for Kim.
Although no case has been reported in North Korea, the COVID-19 outbreak in China and other neighboring countries in the past months has alerted and strained the poor public health system in North Korea. That is why North Korea was among the first batch of countries to close its border to China when it was confirmed that the virus is transmissible between humans.
The collateral damage of the pandemic on the North Korean economy might have made Kim even more anxious. Closing the border with China means cutting off the lifeline of North Korea, which has already suffered from UN-mandated sanctions and has survived in the past few years with sharply reduced trade with China and smuggling through the border with China. Even if the outbreak subsides in China, the cross-border business will recover very slowly, as it is contingent on China’s business and production bouncing back to normalcy.
Across the Pacific, the Trump administration is focusing all its energy on mitigating the pandemic and reopening the economy. The White House now seems to have no interest in negotiations with North Korea and lifting sanctions in the foreseeable future. Even worse, with Joe Biden as the presumptive presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, what may trouble Kim most is Biden’s potential victory in the November 2020 election. The former vice president has always been critical of Trump’s North Korea policy and vowed to reverse the current course. As retaliation, North Korean mass media has lashed out at Biden and called him a “mad dog.” If Biden is elected, Kim will have to face a more hostile adversary, albeit a well-known figure as the vice president in the Obama administration.
Faced with such a gloomy future, economically and internationally, the pressure will put more strain on Kim’s already vulnerable cardiovascular system. Simply put, if Kim decides to continue his dictatorial control of the state, his health may be in danger and the world could greet a new North Korean leader anytime in the near future.
Despite the potential for Kim’s sudden incapacity or death, a succession would not necessarily mean instability for the North Korean regime. Although the external environment is grimmer than in 2011, when Kim Jong Un became the supreme leader, he has laid a solid foundation for his successor in terms of foreign relations. With nuclear weapons at hand, North Korea is holding a trump card to bargain with — and virtually blackmail — the outside world. As tensions rise between China and the United States, it is easier than before for North Korea to reap gains. Although both China and the U.S. regard North Korea as a geopolitical threat, it is getting harder for the two to make coordinated efforts in pressing North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons. In addition, North Korea does not have to worry about being absorbed by South Korea as the latter is increasingly reluctant to unite with an extremely poor country, which would mean a huge burden for economy. Provided that North Korea does not make provocations and draw attacks from the United States and its allies, or implode as the result of a power struggle, the regime stands a good chance to be left alone and survive an unexpected succession.
Cui Lei is an Associate Research Fellow at the Department for U.S. Studies, China Institute of International Studies.