In North Korea’s Kim family, disappearing is an art form. Except when it’s not

Kim Jong Un waves after a parade for the 70th anniversary of North Korea's founding day in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2018. (Kin Cheung/AP)
Kim Jong Un waves after a parade for the 70th anniversary of North Korea's founding day in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2018. (Kin Cheung/AP)

What do we really know about Kim Jong Un’s departure from the public eye? There is talk that the North Korean leader is “in grave danger” or “a vegetative state”; that he suffered a “botched” heart operation; that he was wounded by an explosion from a missile test; and so on. Not impossible. But let’s start with what we actually, factually, know.

First, recall Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson’s famous adage that the stock market has correctly predicted nine of the past five recessions. So, too, the relation between prolonged Kim family disappearances and supreme leader funerals. Every tyrant in the Kim family regime has gone missing multiple times, and for extended periods, only to pop up again alive and in charge.

In one memorable incident in 1986, loudspeakers at the demilitarized zone started playing funeral dirges and offering gushing eulogies to dynasty founder Kim Il Sung — but the music quickly stopped and the great leader returned to center stage. We still don’t know exactly what that was about.

During Kim Jong Il’s timeouts, all sorts of theories surfaced from quasi-official sources in Seoul: The playboy had cracked up his racing car; he had fallen off a horse; his drinking finally got the better of him. The dear leader proved such rumors wrong for a generation.

As for Kim Jong Un, recall that he skipped photo ops for one six-week period in 2014 — prompting speculation of coups and injuries, all forgotten when he surfaced. This year, the man known as “Dear Respected Leader” took off for 22 days before turning up to lay a birthday wreath at his father’s mausoleum. Catastrophic theorizing is not required to explain why Kim Jong Un might be scarce these days. North Korea is about to enter month four of an officially declared “anti-epidemic emergency.” The regime has responded to the coronavirus pandemic with an alarm verging on panic; North Korean propaganda — not known for admitting to internal vulnerabilities — has been screaming that the virus is a threat to “national survival” and could have “catastrophic irreversible consequences.”

There is a logic behind this unconcealed dread. North Korea’s health system is woefully ill-equipped to cope with a contagion of this sort. And unlike famine, covid-19 could personally endanger North Korea’s leaders.

So we do not need to conjure an acute or chronic medical condition to explain why Dear Respected might be out of circulation. Fear of covid-19 would be quite enough to account for that. Occam’s razor — the philosophical precept favoring the parsimonious theory — leans toward this reading of the drama.

But Occam’s razor doesn’t always work. Sometimes the world is complicated, and messy. Even without wading into the feral swamp of rumors to which North Korea-watching is necessarily consigned, there are reasons to wonder whether this time might really be different.

First, though youthful, Kim looks like an advertisement for heart disease. He is morbidly obese and a chain smoker to boot. Westerners who have seen him close up in recent years reportedly say he heaves and puffs just walking across a room.

Second, his quarantine routine adds to the uncertainty. State propaganda indicates he has seen fit to surface for some events, but he seems to have been oddly absent from others. Why would he skip the April 15 birthday commemoration for Kim Il Sung, the iconic patriarch of the North Korean system? Whose oration style and very hairdo he imitates? Whose previous birthdays he has always celebrated with fanfare?

Third, in recent days, North Korea’s party mouthpiece, Rodong Sinmun, and its state news agency, KCNA, have not even bothered displaying stock footage of Dear Respected. Instead, audiences have been treated to stories about notes to foreign dignitaries bearing his signature.

Guess who signs off on Democratic People’s Republic of Korea messaging? That would be Dear Respected’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, de facto chief of the Party’s Agitation and Propaganda Department. Kim Yo Jong, by the way, was already assuming a commanding public role before Dear Respected took his gap year this month: In March it was she who publicly replied to the letter President Trump sent her brother. There are other indications she is consolidating her power — a logical next step if her brother no longer walks among us.

Outsiders cannot yet know of Kim Jong Un’s condition, much less deliberations among the inner circle. Maybe members of his entourage are praying for him to emerge from a coma. Perhaps they’re watching “Weekend at Bernie’s” for cross-cultural tips on pretending the boss is still alive. Or perhaps a bloody battle for the crown is underway.

Or maybe he really is alive and well, just hunkering down to ride out the plague. If so, he had best prepare for the challenge of his life. Lockdown has sent the North Korean economy into a disastrous tailspin. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted Wednesday, famine could be just around the corner, as could catastrophic contagion.

Survival is very much at stake right now — and not just for Dear Respected.

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt chair in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute and is a founding director of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

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