Explainer: Rumours around North Korean leader's health status

Explainer: Rumours around North Korean leader's health status
    REPORTED 21 APR 2020 11:51 GMT   PUBLISHED 21 APR 2020 12:01 GMT

Explainer: Rumours around North Korean
leader's health status


 Kim Jong-un's state of health has become the subject of widespread rumours

International media are speculating that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is "in grave danger"
following apparent surgery, leading to uncertainty about his health and North Korea's

The rumours follow the leader's prolonged public absence, but some are wary of these reports
as outside media have often shared unsubstantiated speculation about Kim's health in the past.

This may well be the case again, as indicated by official South Korean and Chinese sources
suggesting that they have not seen any “unusual” North Korean activity to back such claims.
Explainer: Rumours around North Korean leader's health status
If there is weight to the rumours, however, this could raise questions about the future of the
ruling regime in the absence of an officially designated successor.

What do the rumours say?


 State media last reported on 12 April about Kim's public appearances

US television network CNN reported on 21 April that the US is monitoring reports that Kim is
"in grave danger after a surgery", citing an unnamed US official.

CNN did not elaborate on the surgery or the source, but noted that Kim's last confirmed
appearance came on 11 April at a ruling Workers' Party meeting.

State media reports of the meeting appeared on 12 April, the same day that a report of another
Kim appearance at an air force inspection on an unspecified date was published.

He later missed high-profile events such as his grandfather Kim Il-sung's birth anniversary on
15 April and a 12 April session of North Korea's rubber-stamp parliament.

State media also failed to report a 14 April weapons launch, which would usually dominate
coverage had Kim been present.

CNN's story followed a report by South Korea-based website Daily NK on 20 April, which said
that Kim underwent heart surgery at the Hyangsan Hospital in North Pyongan province and
has since been recuperating nearby.
Explainer: Rumours around North Korean leader's health status
After CNN subsequently reported that Kim was in "grave danger", the unconfirmed report was
carried by media outlets worldwide.

Has there been similar speculation earlier?


 Kim reappeared with a cane in 2014 amid speculation over a prolonged public absence

This isn't the first time Kim's health has led to international speculation.

A six-week absence in 2014 led to rumours of serious problems, but Kim eventually
reappeared with a cane. South Korea's National Intelligence Service later said that he had a
cyst removed from his ankle.

Kim's alleged heart problems were also mentioned in unverified Japanese and Korean-
language online videos this February, which suggested he had recently undergone surgery in

North Korea-focused website NK News reported on 18 April that an unconfirmed rumour
circulating in South Korea said that Kim was left "brain dead" after recent surgery.

Kim Jong-un is not the only subject of such speculation.
Explainer: Rumours around North Korean leader's health status
His grandfather Kim Il-sung was reported dead by international media in 1986 following
apparent announcements along the inter-Korean border. The nation's founder was in fact alive,
and eventually died eight years later.

Other officials have frequently been reported dead by international media or banished from
Pyongyang's hierarchy, only to reappear later.

Analysis: The North Korean officials who returned from the dead

Explainer: Why do South Korean media often get North Korea wrong?

What is the reaction?
North Korean media are yet to react to the speculation and continue to report routine news, but
this silence is not unusual.

When Kim Jong-il – Kim Jong-un's father – suffered a stroke in 2008, state media did not
report it. The news was instead broken by international media citing several sources, including
confirmation from a French doctor who was flown in to treat Kim Jong-il.

Given Pyongyang's past reluctance to report on its leaders' health, state media are unlikely to
respond to the latest speculation. Indeed, North Korean media on 21 April even reported Kim's
continued activities, such as sending a letter to the Cuban leader.

South Korean officials have suggested that there is no evidence yet to support CNN's report.

A spokesman for Cheong Wa Dae – South Korea's presidential office – told reporters: "We
have nothing to confirm and there has been no unusual activity detected in North Korea."

Semi-official Yonhap News Agency also reported that an unnamed Cheong Wa Dae official
said that Kim is currently staying in a rural area with close aides, not near Hyangsan Hospital.
The source said: "We haven't received any information to support news on his health

One statement to the contrary came from Yoon Sang-hyun, a representative of South Korea's
Unification Committee, who told reporters on 21 April that his sources indicated that Kim Jong-
un did in fact undergo a heart surgery.

The Chinese government is yet to issue an official statement, but Hong Kong-based Apple
Daily reported that Kim is not in a critical condition, citing unnamed Chinese Communist Party

The White House declined to comment on the rumours, according to NK News.
Explainer: Rumours around North Korean leader's health status
North Korea watchers on Twitter are wary of speculating or dismissing rumours outright

What happens next?
In the absence of North Korean reports, history may help gauge the country's probable next

Kim has often reappeared hale and hearty following similar international speculation, which
may happen once more if state media reports of his activities attempt to highlight a leader in
good health.

However, some observers have suggested that Kim's absence at his grandfather's mausoleum
on 15 April could be a sign of worse health conditions this time.

While state media remain silent thus far, it should also be noted that when Kim Jong-il died in
2011 the news went unreported for two days.

In the event of the worst-case scenario, there remain unanswered questions about the leader's
succession, as he is yet to designate an official successor.

His children are very young and remain mostly unknown domestically and internationally.

His sister Kim Yo-jong – a senior party official in her own right – has long been considered a
potential successor by international media or a possible regent if one of Kim Jong-un's children
becomes leader.

  Kim Yo-jong is often portrayed by international media as a potential leader

But in the absence of an official line of succession, being directly related is no guarantee of
eligibility to rule, leaving a potential power vacuum.

Writing for NK News in March 2019, North Korean politics expert Fyodor Tertitskiy suggested
that this could be the case, highlighting leading official Choe Ryong-hae as an example of a
potential successor.

For Choe or another senior official to become leader, they would typically need to be elected at
a parliament session or a ruling party conference or congress.

For now, discussion of Kim Jong-un's successor remains premature, and observers and
governments in the region are set to continue monitoring North Korea for updates on the
leader's health.


© British Broadcasting Corporation 2024
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