By Makino Yoshihiro (Asahi Shimbun Editorial Committee)
Movements suggestive of a “power vacuum”
It has been two weeks since North Korea last reported on the activities of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. There were about 40 days in the fall of 2014 in which Kim did not appear in public, reportedly because of surgery to remove a tumor from an ankle. This time, there are various theories for his absence, ranging from death, brain death, being in a vegetative state, ankle surgery, self-quarantining from the new coronavirus, and convalescence.
The party most forcibly arguing that “Kim Jong Un is in good health” is the South Korean government.
South Korea’s Office of the President has repeatedly explained that Kim Jong Un is at his retreat at Wonsan, Kangwon Province, in the eastern part of the country, carrying out his routine activities with top officials.
The South Korean government’s claim is most likely based on a satellite image released on April 25 by “38 North,” an American website that analyzes information on North Korea. The image shows a train thought to be Kim’s private train at Wonsan station. The South Korean government has concluded that Kim Jong Un is directing activities from the provinces, based on evidence of his train’s movements to or from Wonsan.
The fact that his private train is moving does not mean Kim Jong Un is in good health. It is highly possible that this is diversionary tactic to prevent the U.S. and South Korea from taking advantage of the “power vacuum.” At the very least, it is certain that Kim Jong Un is unable to carry out his routine duties.
According to a high-ranking North Korean defector who maintains contact with Pyongyang, documents called “handwritten number one proposals” have not been seen lately in the North Korean Worker’s Party and government agencies.
A “number one proposal” is a document submitted to the North Korean leader for approval. When the supreme leader approves its content, he signs the document. If he does not approve, he does not sign. If he is particularly satisfied with the document, or wishes to add specific instructions, he makes handwritten additions before returning the document. Although it is unknown whether signed documents have ceased to be observed, proposals with Kim Jong Un’s handwritten additions have reportedly not been observed in government agencies after mid-April.
Even if not “dead” or “critically ill”
There are certainly signs that Kim Jong Un has not been making decisions of late.
The Japanese Air Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. Air Force held a joint training session with the U.S. B-1B bomber in the air space around Japan on April 22. The U.S. Forces Japan released photos of the Japan–U.S. formation flight on its Facebook page on April 23.
North Korea traditionally has a great aversion to B-1B’s. Whenever B-1B’s flew near the Korean peninsula in the past, North Korea has reacted violently, yet there North Korea did not react to the April flight. A South Korean security specialist says that “without Kim Jong Un’s instructions, North Korea cannot decide on the degree of criticism towards the U.S,” which shows that Kim Jong Un has not returned to his duties.
The U.S. seems to think there is a problem with Kim Jong Un’s health, judging from the fact that U.S. President Trump has repeatedly mentioned the subject. At the same time, Japan, the U.S., and South Korea have concluded that North Korea has not adopted a quasi-state of war posture in the border areas, nor has the North Korean army made forward deployments along the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Based on these facts, a Japanese government insider says that “there is no doubt that Kim Jong Un has a health problem that is more than mild.” Another insider says that “the current situation for Japan, U.S., and South Korea is one where we can draw conclusions from only circumstantial evidence” and that Kim Jong Un’s death or that he is in critical condition “cannot be ruled out.”
According to multiple U.S. and South Korean sources, there are signs that North Korea will launch a ballistic missile at Hamgyongnam Province. Observers in these countries have speculated that Kim Jong Un will conduct his first instructional activity at Hamgyongnam after his recovery, or that North Korea will launch a missile as a diversionary tactic if his recovery is delayed.
President Trump said in an April 27 press conference that he has a “very good idea” about Kim Jong Un’s health but that he cannot talk about it now and wished Kim well. President Trump also said that people will hear from Kim in the “not-too-distant future.”
Taking these comments into consideration, it seems likely that Kim Jong Un will return to his duties eventually, although it may take some time. A U.S. and South Korean affairs insider said that Kim was receiving treatment for heart disease and is on a recovery track. There is no definitive evidence that denies a theory of Kim’s death or critical illness. Even if Kim Jong Un recovers, his health may not stabilize. President Trump’s April 23 press conference suggests such thinking.
What was behind the “team of foreign physicians?”
When asked in an April 23 press conference about CNN’s reports that Kim was in critical condition, President Trump said that the report was “not accurate” and was briefed that it was based on “old information.”
According to U.S. and South Korean insiders, “old information” refers to Kim Jong Un’s treatment by a team of German physicians in mid-February 2020.
North Korea initially requested a French team of physicians visit North Korea. Kim’s mother, Ko Yong Hui, was treated for cancer in France and died there. When Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, suffered a stroke in 2008, a French military physician performed brain surgery. It is thought that North Korea initially requested a French team come to North Korea for Kim Jong Un’s treatment, following these previous ties with France. The French visit did not materialize, and a German team was requested instead.
It is not known why the French physicians did not visit North Korea. Another insider says that it may be due to the new coronavirus. “The French may have refused to visit North Korea because of the new coronavirus,” says the insider.
North Korea has been on edge about the new coronavirus and closed its border with China at the end of January. The fact that North Korea invited a team of foreign physicians, even though it fears the new coronavirus infections so much as to close its borders, is very meaningful.
The February treatment reportedly concluded without problems, which is why President Trump pointed out that the report [of Kim’s ill health] was “not accurate.” On Feb. 16, his father Kim Jong Il’s birthday, Kim Jong Un paid his respects at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun with other top officials. The palace houses Kim Jong Il’s body.
Will the totalitarian regime be shaken?
A high level of skill is thought to have been necessary for the February 2020 treatment, even though it concluded without complications. North Korea’s leader has a personal physician who belongs to the Workers’ Party. If this physician cannot handle a health matter, foreign medical treatment is sought. This means that Kim Jong Un’s health condition was already at a stage where he needed foreign medical support.
It is likely that Kim Jong Un has fallen ill again, two months after his treatment. Because Kim’s family has a history of heart disease and his sudden weight gain undermines his health, Kim Jong Un will surely always have health problems.
While its leader faces serious health issues, how will North Korea’s totalitarian regime change?
Kim Jong Un will not wish to think about the event of his own death. His father Kim Jong Il did not name a successor until his stroke in 2008, for fear of weakening his authority.
Because of his health issues, Kim Jong Un is pressed with the need to reduce his workload. He is seen to rely on his sister, Kim Yo Jong.
It is thought that Kim Yo Jong was removed as a politburo alternate after the failed second U.S. – North Korea summit in February 2019. In April 2020, she was reinstated as a politburo alternate at the Workers’ Party politburo meeting.
Kim Yo Jong reportedly assumed the post of first vice-chairman of the Organizing and Guidance Department, a core department of the Workers’ Party, at the party’s December 2019 central committee meeting. A high-ranking North Korean defector says that this appointment may provide Kim Yo Jong with an opportunity to gain experience in party affairs under party chairman Kim Jong Un.
Kim Yo Jong was not among the group of top party officials who paid their respects at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on April 15. She was said to have been at Kim Jong Un’s side at Wonsan, together with Jo Yong Won, who is the vice chairman of the Organizing and Guidance Department and thought to be the closest aid of Kim Jong Un.
If Kim Jong Un returns to his duties with health issues, his public appearances may decrease. In such a situation, it is thought that Kim Yo Jong will carry out his duties on his behalf.
The viability of Kim Yo Jong as a “successor”
In the event of Kim Jong- Un’s death, is there a possibility that Kim Yo Jong will succeed him?
A successor of Kim Jong Un needs to have the “Mount Paektu bloodline;” in other words, be a blood relative of Kim Il Sung.
North Korea is a totalitarian state that has never experienced a regime change since its founding in 1948. North Korea claims to be a “normal state” and insists that the Workers’ Party has legitimate claims to power even without holding elections. The basis for this claim is the “Mount Paektu bloodline.” In order to protect the narrative that North Korea’s prosperity depends on the accomplishments of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, there is an absolute need to have a person of Kim Il Sung’s lineage as its ruler.
People often named as blood relations of Kim Il-sung are as follows: Kim Yong Ju (Kim Il Sung’s brother and former Vice Premier); Kim Pyong Il (Kim Jong Il’s half-brother and former ambassador to the Czech Republic who has recently returned to North Korea); Kim Sul Song (Kim Jong Il’s daughter), Kim Jong Chul (Kim Jong Un’s brother); and Kim Yo Jong.
All the above except for Kim Yo Jong do not currently hold positions in the Workers’ Party. When Kim Jong Un first appeared in public as a successor to Kim Jong Il at the 2010 Workers’ Party conference, he was selected as member of the Central Committee. Although it is possible that Kim Jong Chul and Kim Pyong Il assume official positions in the future, Kim Yo Jong, who already has an official position, is the only person now who fulfills the qualifications of a successor.
Nevertheless, high-ranking North Korean defectors all deny that Kim Yo Jong will succeed Kim Jong Un because North Korea is a highly male-dominated society.
One defector says that if Kim Yo Jong becomes the leader of North Korea, its top officials would not listen to her. A former South Korean official who was long responsible for North-South relations tells of a time he visited North Korea and dined with North Korean officials. When discussing their families, the South Korean official said that he helps with cleaning and dishwashing on weekends. The North Korean officials were very surprised, saying that he must be joking; “no man would do housework.”
The same former official says that in terms of the Mount Paektu bloodline, gender may not make a difference.
On Feb. 9, 2019, Kim Yo Jong visited South Korea to attend the opening ceremonies of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. At the VIP room in Incheon Airport, the South Koreans offered a seat to Kim Yong Nam, then-president of the Supreme People’s Assembly and head of the North Korean national team.
Kim Yong Nam looked back and was watching for Kim Yo Jong. When taking a seat, Kim Yong Nam motioned to Kim Yo Jong to take a seat. Kim Yo Jong smiled and ceded the seat to Kim Yong Nam. The former South Korean official says that “Kim Jong Un was thought to be just a young boy at first, but he became established as a ruler. Kim Yo Jong should have no problem.”
The sibling’s weak powerbase
North Korea’s autocratic regime will be unable to avoid a change in the aftermath of Kim Jong Un’s current health issues.
Both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il gained power through bloody political struggles. Kim Jong Il had absolute power over the Worker’s Party. Children of upper-level party members needed Kim Jong Il’s permission to marry. Kim Jong Il knew the details of all top officials’ families.
Kim Jong Il had many close aides, such as Jang Song Taek (Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law and former national defense commission vice-chairman), Ri Je Gang (friend of Kim Jong Un’s mother Ko Yong Hui), Kim Yong Sun (diplomat active in Japanese and U.S. affairs), O Geuk Ryeol (former military chief of staff). To maintain his power, Kim Jong Il had his aides compete against one another. For example, Jang and Ri kept an eye on each other’s movements at one time.
Kim Jong Un lacks such close aides because he did not seize power himself. Kim Jong Un always has been insecure in the seat of power, as witnessed by a recent shuffle of party officials in April 2020. Kim Jong Un made his sister his assistant because he does not trust anyone else.
Kim Yo Jong faces a similar dilemma. If Kim Jong Un’s health situation is serious, she will likely be speedily promoted within the Workers’ Party to politburo member, then to the Presidium of the politburo. Her promotions will not necessarily be accompanied by actual increase of authority.
That there is a strong likelihood of Kim Yo Jong becoming North Korea’s leader is due to the motives of the North Korean elite who want to maintain power and their privileges. A Japanese government expert who has long handled North Korea issues says that “a power struggle always occurs when there is no charismatic leader,” and that “the elite do not want such a situation.” The expert also said that the power of the dictator will “only decline from now on” and North Korea will shift to a political system that emphasizes benefits for the entire elite class.
North Korea will not immediately shift to a system of collective leadership, a system with term limits for its leaders such as in Vietnam, or a political system such as that formerly seen in China. If the characteristics of collective leadership grow stronger, an environment that allows the emergence of new leadership may possibly develop. Such a development will open the path for a transition to a real market economy with private companies.
If the elite want to protect their privileges at any price, Kim Jong Un’s death will not result in confusion. On the other hand, a transition to a market economy may be a development that brings hope for the North Korean people.