North Korea’s enduring secrecy means that morsels of often thinly sourced information can quickly capture the attention of the world.
In 1986, newspapers splashed across their front pages stories of the death of Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder. He would live another eight years.
The latest rumor concerns Kim Il Sung’s grandson and current North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. A Seoul-based website reported Monday that the dictator had undergone a “cardiovascular procedure,” sparking a media frenzy and widespread speculation that Kim was seriously ill — and possibly even at death’s door.
But experts who study North Korea have almost unanimously expressed skepticism of the report, which relied on anonymous sources. Both the governments of South Korea, which tracks activity north of the border closely, and China, which is North Korea’s most important backer, also dismissed the report.
“Only one source right now. Echo chamber,” Victor Cha, Korea chairman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former member of the U.S. National Security Council under President George W. Bush, said in an email.
“I have a sheet with about 18 different rumors of coup attempts and deaths from the late ’80s through the ’90s. Many more after that,” added Michael Madden, an expert at the Stimson Center on North Korea’s leadership. “If you do this for a certain number of years, the occasional far-out rumors are an amusing diversion.”
The North Korean rumor mill is a constant background noise that complicates the already-difficult task of gleaning information from a nuclear-armed state that’s maintained isolation for decades.
The report about Kim’s medical procedure earlier this month originated from the Daily NK, a website affiliated with the South Korea Unification Ministry. The outlet, which relies on anonymous sources in North Korea, counts the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy as one of its financial backers. South Korea’s intelligence service has contacted the outlet for information on occasion, but not all the information it has published has proven accurate.
A spokesman for the South Korean president’s office said Tuesday that “no unusual developments have been detected inside North Korea.” Madden said Seoul has taken a harder stance against death rumors involving the leadership in Pyongyang over the last decade because of attempts to manipulate the stock market with unsubstantiated news.
Kim’s health has always been a source of speculation. The portly 36-year-old is a heavy smoker with a penchant for excess. When he didn’t appear at his grandfather’s birthday ceremonies last week, some wondered if his absence was related to the coronavirus.
If nothing else, the rumor has raised questions about what would happen to North Korea if Kim died unexpectedly, which would plunge the impoverished nation and Chinese-dominated region into uncertainty at a time when the world is distracted by a pandemic.
Who would replace Kim? Hereditary succession is a feature of North Korean rule, but little is known about Kim’s children (he’s believed to have three), who are anyway too young to take control.
The country could break with gender tradition and keep power within the immediate family by tapping Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, who has emerged as a trusted confidant of her brother.
“Kim Yo Jong’s profile has risen and her role has broadened significantly over the past couple years,” said Rachel Lee, a former North Korea analyst for the U.S. government.
Kim Yo Jong could serve as a placeholder until one of her brother’s children is old enough to take over.
Regardless, the regime has procedures in place to keep the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea in power, experts said.
“Military generals or party officials might jockey for power,” said Duyeon Kim, a senior advisor for the International Crisis Group on Northeast Asia. “China-backed North Korean elites might look for a successor. Some forces might try to bring back and elevate [Kim’s] nephew Kim Han Sol. The list goes on with so many variables.”
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Someone outside the Kim family, such as insider Choe Ryong Hae, a military official, could assume the mantle of leader. But Lee doesn’t see that happening.
“Upholding a non-Kim as the leader is unthinkable in North Korea,” Lee said. “Moreover, being wealthy and powerful in the North Korean leadership under Kim Jong Un does not necessarily mean you have enough power or the resources to wage a power struggle and succeed. The top echelons of the North Korean leadership know that they have everything to lose if the system went down, and I think they would unite around the next Kim for regime stability.”
For now, the rumors of Kim’s poor health are being treated with caution by analysts, who have frequently seen such frenzied conjecture about North Korea come to nothing.
Among the more outlandish and grisly rumors was the supposed execution by firing squad of singer Hyon Song-wol in front of her family and bandmates in 2014. Hyon was said to have angered Kim, a rumored love interest, for participating in a pornographic film.
Hyon, singer of the North Korean hit “Excellent Horse-Like Lady,” appeared on TV the following year.