After having gone missing for twenty days, Kim Jong-un reappeared on May 1, 2020 at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a new fertilizer production facility in Sunchon. What fueled much speculation about Kim’s ill-health, and rumors of his death, for the past three weeks was the fact that he has missed several important public events, including his grandfather’s birthday commemoration on April 15th, which was highly unusual and unprecedented for Kim.
- We still don’t know what happened. Why Kim disappeared remains a mystery. We do not have any confirmed reporting exactly what happened during the past three weeks–whether Kim has been indeed ill and recovered, whether he had some sort of a medical procedure, whether he was self-quarantining from the coronavirus, or whether all of this is just an elaborate plot by the regime to see how foreign and domestic forces would react to fake reports about Kim’s death. It is quite possible that more than one of these explanations may be accurate.
- At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, something appeared awry. Kim’s face seemed to be swollen and analysts noted a mark on his wrist, which could indicate that some form of medical procedure may have taken place. Kim also used a battery-powered cart to get around the factory. This heightens speculation that he could have had a medical procedure, with most analysts suggesting it may have been related to his heart.
- The rampant speculation about Kim’s health once again underscores that assessments relating to the North Korean leader are extraordinarily difficult given the secretive nature of North Korea, lack of intelligence from Kim’s inner circle, and the regime’s tight control of information. It is useful to keep in mind that the U.S. intelligence community did not find out about the death of Kim’s father until two days later—and then only because Pyongyang announced it.
- Even if Kim is not debilitated now, he is in poor health and his health remains a wildcard for regime stability. Kim is 5’7, weighs roughly 300 pounds (with a BMI estimated at 46), smokes and drinks heavily, and his family has a history of cardiac disease. Those are all significant risk factors.
- There is no ready successor-in-waiting should something happen to Kim in the near future. Kim’s children are too young and North Korea does not have an official line of succession. While the North’s constitution gives the Supreme People’s Assembly the authority to elect a new supreme leader, there is no designated successor as in the United States where the vice president takes over if the president dies. Thus regardless of the current status of Kim’s health, it is all the more important that the U.S. draw closer with its ally South Korea to make sure we are on the same page should anything happen to Kim.
- The key question now is how Kim will proceed in the coming months. Kim may soon refocus on dialing up pressure on Washington by conducting provocations in the form of more missile testing and even cyber attacks. These are likely to be lesser provocations, such as a medium-range missile test over Japan, submarine-launched ballistic missile, or a satellite launched into orbit. CSIS’s data show that North Korea tests more missiles in a presidential election year. But Kim has an incentive to stay away from long-range missile tests or nuclear tests, which President Trump has made clear are redlines for him–at least as long as Kim believes that President Trump could remain in office.