Kim Jong Un Reported to Be Gravely Ill, Raising Succession Questions

Patrick Goodenough | April 21, 2020 | 4:01am EDT
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Kim Jong Un and his sister Kim Yo Jong, at the signing of a declaration during an inter-Korean summit on the DMZ in April 2018. (photo: Korea Summit Press Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Kim Jong Un and his sister Kim Yo Jong, at the signing of a declaration during an inter-Korean summit on the DMZ in April 2018. (photo: Korea Summit Press Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

( – South Korea’s government on Tuesday responded to media reports saying Kim Jong Un was believed to be gravely ill by saying it had seen “no unusual activity” in its Stalinist neighbor to back up the claims.

Because of the brutality and belligerence of the nuclear-armed regime, the health of North Korea’s dictators has long been closely monitored by intelligence agencies, hampered by the secretive nature of the “hermit kingdom.” Past speculation has often proven to be wrong.

CNN cited an unnamed U.S. official as saying the U.S. was monitoring intelligence to the effect that Kim was “in grave danger after a surgery.”

A spokesman for the South Korean presidency, Kang Min-seok, said in a brief statement in response to the reports, “We have nothing to confirm and there has been no unusual activity detected in North Korea.”

Kim is only in his mid-30s, but is overweight and known to be a heavy smoker.

The Daily NK, a South Korean-based news service focusing on the North, reported that Kim had undergone surgery on April 12 for a cardiovascular issue caused by “excessive smoking, obesity and overwork.”

Two days later, North Korea fired a series of cruise missiles and air-to-ground missiles off the east coast of the Korean peninsula. Kim was not pictured observing the launches, as frequently has been the case in the past.

The following day, April 15, Kim was not seen during the annual celebration of the birthday, 108 years ago, of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung.

The commemoration known as “Day of the Sun” is among the most important on the regime’s national calendar, and Kim has reportedly not skipped the annual visit to the mausoleum housing the remains of his grandfather (Kim Il Sung) and father (Kim Jong Il) since taking power after the latter’s death in 2011.

North Korean media outlets showed a number of events in the days leading up to the date of Kim’s purported surgery – attending a drill by an army mortar unit on April 10, leading a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) politburo and observing the firing of a “tactical guided weapon” on April 11, and inspecting an air force “pursuit assault plane group” on April 12.

There are no further reports of his movements since April 12, although the foreign ministry does carry standard greeting messages attributed to Kim -- to the Assad regime on Syria’s independence day (Apr. 17); to Zimbabwe’s president on that country’s independence day (Apr. 18); and to Cuba’s president on his 60th birthday (Apr. 20).

In a photo carried by a regime propaganda site, Kim Jong Un attends a army mortar unit drill on April 10. (Photo: Uriminzokkiri)
In a photo carried by a regime propaganda site, Kim Jong Un attends a army mortar unit drill on April 10. (Photo: Uriminzokkiri)

On Monday, the WPK organ Rodong Sinmun published a commentary extolling Kim’s “wise” leadership.

“Under his leadership our people are continuously bringing about a great upswing in the production and construction, regarding it as the main line to exalt the guidance exploits of the great leaders associated with their domains and units and carry out their behests without fail,” it said.

On Saturday, President Trump during a White House coronavirus briefing mentioned that he received a “nice note” from Kim “recently,” without elaboration.

A day later a foreign ministry spokesman in Pyongyang said Trump may have been referring to a personal letter received previously, but that “the supreme leadership” had not addressed a letter to Trump recently.

Succession line unclear

Whatever the validity of reports about the dictator’s health, they draw attention again to the issue of succession in North Korea.

Kim Il Sung named Kim Jong Il as his successor in 1980, 14 years before his death. Kim Jong Il’s third son, Kim Jong Un, was gradually presented as heir apparent during 2009, a status confirmed in late 2010, a little more than a year before Kim Jong Il died aged 69.

Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, has become more visible in recent years, especially since her appearance at the Winter Olympics in South Korea in early 2018, the first member of the Kim dynasty to visit the South since the Korean War ended in 1953 with the peninsula divided.

Since then, Kim Yo Jong has been seen with her brother at key summits, both with Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

In late 2017 she was named a member of the WPK politburo and she is currently first vice department director of the WPK’s central committee, promotions that added to speculation that she may be being groomed for leadership.

In 2015, Kim Yo Jong became head of the WPK’s propaganda and agitation department (PAD), which sets guidelines for the country’s media outlets and oversees one of the world’s most rigid censorship regimes.

The U.S. Treasury Department in 2016 designated the PAD for sanctions, saying the ruling party through that department uses the media “as a tool to control the public.”

Kim Yo Jong was herself targeted for U.S. sanctions in 2017, one of seven senior officials designated for human rights abuses and “rigid censorship policies.”

Another possible candidate for leadership, although not a member of the “sacred” Kim dynasty, is Choe Ryong Hae, vice chairman of the WPK, and Kim Jong Un’s de facto No. 2.

In December 2018 the Treasury Department targeted Choe, and two other officials, for sanctions for human rights abuses and censorship. It said the designations “serve as a reminder of North Korea’s brutal treatment” of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died just days after he was released from a North Korean prison and returned home in a coma in mid-2017.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said at the time Choe and the other two led “departments that perpetrate the regime’s brutal state-sponsored censorship activities, human rights violations and abuses, and other abuses in order to suppress and control the population.”

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