North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attending a session of the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang in January 2020. Photo: KCNA via KNS/ AFP Forum/Stringer

Two reports from the Seoul-based news organization Daily NK on Thursday suggest that earlier claims that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was dead, close to death or in critical condition may have validity. The guessing game may be coming down to the end game.

One Daily NK article says that instructions from Kim Jong Un with his signature have been sent to subordinates – but composed in a style so unlike his normal memo style as to make officials suspect that he is unable to fulfill his duties, and that someone else is acting for him.

Another Daily NK article reports that North Korean authorities, normally zealous to crack down on the spreading inside the country of rumors about the semi-deified ruler, are not doing so now that rumors of his demise or grave condition are rampant.

One exception the publication cites: Officials are in full investigative mode to determine who brought from China a video purporting to be an official North Korean TV account of Kim’s death, which is making the rounds in the country. The fake video was the subject of an earlier Daily NK story.

Daily NK, founded partly by North Korean defectors, relies on testimony from people inside the country who are close enough to the Chinese border to use Chinese cellphones and connect via cellular networks inside China to the organization’s reporters.

The organization’s reporting over the years has often proved highly accurate and it has an excellent reputation among professional North Korea watchers. It was the first news organization to report last week on Kim health issues, saying that the ruler had undergone a coronary procedure and was recuperating at one of his villas.

Other news organizations elsewhere ran with the story and upgraded Kim’s reported ailment to life-threatening.

Kim Jong Un in a file photo. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS

While North Korea over the decades has shown close to zero interest in reassuring foreigners who raised concerns over disappearances from public view of Kim Jong Un and his predecessors, the fact that dire rumors have become widespread inside North Korea makes this situation different from those of the past.

The regime now must feel itself under pressure to produce a live and capable Kim Jong Un or, if that’s impossible, decide how to announce to his subjects his demise or incapacitating poor health.

The latter would necessarily require deciding who will act in his stead, temporarily or as a permanent successor. The next few days may well tell the tale.

Daily NK reported that Kim’s instructions had failed to be disseminated during the previous two weeks.

“In normal times,” it said, “Kim reportedly released these directives every Wednesday or Thursday to provincial party committees and government agencies, according to a Daily NK source in the country.” 

The publication suggested subordinates this time intentionally varied the format to avoid breaking a rule against copying the ruler’s style and tone. 

“In the past, any rumors about the North Korean leader or his family would have provoked a rapid response from state authorities,” the publication reported in the other story published Thursday. “This time, however, North Korean authorities have made no such move to silence any rumors, provoking further suspicion about Kim’s present condition.” 

It quoted one anonymous resident of North Hamgyong province as saying: “There are even people who say they saw the video claiming Kim had died, but most people are trying their best to stay unnoticed because the authorities are hunting down whoever brought the video over the border” from China.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un watching through binoculars as a new-type of tactical guided short-range missile is launched at an undisclosed location in North Korea in July 2019. Photo: KCNA via KNS /South Korea Out via AFP Forum

 “All sorts of rumors are spreading,” that source was quoted as telling Daily NK. “But even though the government is aware of all this, there has been no centralized response to it, either in the form of lectures or otherwise. That’s really strange.”

Daily NK’s Tuesday article on the mysterious video began: “After a video claiming North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has died began circulating in the area of North Korea bordering China, North Korean authorities are intensifying efforts to identify how the video entered the country, Daily NK has learned. 

“The video in question looks like it was broadcast by Korean Central Television [KCTV] and entered the country through China,” it quotes a North Pyongan Province-based source as saying. “The video claims that Kim suddenly died during on-the-spot guidance,” as ruling Kim’s inspection visits are termed.

The five-minute video shows the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the mauseleum where the embalmed bodies of founder Kim Il Sung and second ruler Kim Jong Il lie in state, Daily NK reported.

“Our Beloved Supreme Leader Comrade Kim Jong Un passed away during on-the-spot guidance,” the caption says.

The fake-news video alleges that Kim died on an inspection trip on April 25 at 12:30 am and that his sister Kim Yo Jong would be succeeding him.

There’s no indication that the authorities think the Beijing government had anything to do with the video. Most foreign videos available in North Korea come in from, or via, China, and sometimes they include videos critical of the North Korean leadership or taking a satirical approach to it.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un speaks as he stands with US President Donald Trump south of the Military Demarcation Line that divides North and South Korea, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized zone (DMZ) on June 30, 2019. Photo: AFP

The United States doesn’t know where Kim is. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News Wednesday: “We haven’t seen him. We don’t have any information to report today. We’re watching it closely.”

As early as when the first Daily NK article about Kim’s coronary procedure came out, the regime should have felt something a little different from its traditional lack of urgency about having the missing ruler reappear in public view.

After all, revealing that Kim was alive and well would have given a black eye to a news organization that Pyongyang reviles.

Now that 19 days have passed since he was last sighted in public and it’s not only foreigners who are reading and hearing bad things about Kim’s health, continuing indefinitely to say nothing and pretend it’s business as usual isn’t a viable option.

An Asia correspondent and North Korea watcher for more than four decades, Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.