Official Korean Central News Agency picture taken Saturday shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaking during a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP / STR / KCNA VIA KNS

The United States has seen intelligence indicating that North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un “is in grave danger after a surgery,” according to CNN. The network quotes “a US official with direct knowledge.”

There has been no official confirmation of that prognosis. Bloomberg News in its follow-up quoted unnamed US officials as saying the White House had been told Kim took a turn for the worse after surgery last week and his condition had become critical. But the Bloomberg report emphasized that the US administration was not certain about the current condition of Kim.

Both the CNN and Bloomberg dispatches followed a report by Daily NK, a Seoul-based news service partially staffed by defectors and with contacts inside North Korea, quoting one such source as saying Kim underwent “urgent” cardiovascular surgery April 12 at a hospital near one of his many villas.

“Excessive smoking, obesity, and fatigue were the direct causes of Kim’s urgent cardiovascular treatment,” Daily NK cited the unidentified source as saying.

He was “recuperating” with doctors in attendance at his Hyangsan villa, in the Mount Myohyang area north of Pyongyang, Daily NK added.

The source “suggested” that the surgery took place at Hyangsan Hospital, which Daily NK said is reserved for members of the Kim family.

“A doctor from the Kim Man Yoo Hospital in Pyongyang reportedly managed Kim’s heart operation along with other doctors with the Korean Red Cross General Hospital and the Pyongyang Medical University who typically handle medical issues concerning the North Korean leader,” Daily NK said.

Tending to call into question the US media reports, Daily NK added: “Most of the doctors reportedly returned to Pyongyang after Kim’s condition was considered stable following the surgery. Only some of the doctors have remained near Kim to monitor his health, the Daily NK source said.”

Of course Kim’s condition could have changed after some docttors had returned to Pyongyang and/or after the Daily NK source reported, and that new development could have come to the attention of US intelligence.

In addition to the doctors still attending him, Daily NK said, “around 30 members of Kim’s personal guard along with other guard units are reportedly watching over Hyang San Villa. Guards who were at the villa before Kim arrived have reportedly been stationed elsewhere for the time being.”

Skeptical responses

A spokesman for South Korea’s presidential Blue House said in an early statement: “We have nothing to confirm and no special movement has been detected inside North Korea as of now.”

Later on Tuesday, the Blue House said, in a text message sent to foreign reporters, that Kim was “with his aides” and was “carrying out normal duties.” However, the Blue House did not mention Kim’s state of health, nor the source of their information.

The South’s unification ministry – which handles inter-Korean relations – and the defense ministry declined to comment and Moon Chung-in, the security adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, told AFP that he had not heard anything on Kim’s health.

Thae Yong Ho, a former senior North Korean diplomat who last week became the first defector ever to be directly elected to the South’s parliament, was skeptical about the reports. 

“The movements and personal affairs of the Kim family are national top secret issues which are little known to not only ordinary people but also high-ranking officials,” he said in a statement. 

Thae recalled that Kim’s father Kim Jong Il died on December 17, 2011, but even two days later it was still business as usual at the North’s foreign ministry. “Everyone was caught by surprise” when the announcement was made, he said.

Speculation rife

Kim had last been seen publicly as he presided over a meeting of the Political Bureau of the ruling Workers’ Party on April 11.

His subsequent absence from April 15 rites celebrating the 108th birthday of his grandfather, the country’s first president, Kim Il Sung, had aroused intense speculation.

Regarding that, Daily NK had reported: “‘On Monday night [April 13] , the authorities suddenly announced that many of the events celebrating Kim Il Sung’s birthday have been canceled,’ a Ryanggang Province-based source told Daily NK on April 14. Daily NK sources also reported that representatives from around the country were told to watch a rally held on the afternoon of April 14 on TV.”

On the 15th, Kim Il Sung’s actual birthday and North Korea’s most important holiday, “A skeleton crew was at hand for a flag-raising ceremony.” 

Speculation on Jong Un’s health has been rife for years as he’s bloated himself up into a facsimile of his popularly revered grandfather, smoking all the while.

He was audibly out of breath last June 30 when he met US President Donald Trump in the Demilitarized Zone. Earlier, reporters who covered the first-ever summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in 2018 were surprised to hear heavy puffing from Kim being picked up on audio as he and Moon walked up a low flight of steps.

Anna Fifield, author of a biography of Kim, describes him as five feet seven inches tall and weighing around 300 pounds, making his body mass index 45: “extremely obese.”

Unhealthy Kims

While the ruling Kim clan have access to the very best health care in North Korea – from “wizard’s pillow” herbal health packs to imported Western doctors who enter the country when the need arises – the family genes are not good.

“It is definitely not a healthy family,” Sebastian Falletti, author of the biography La Piste Kim: Voyage au coeur de la Coree du Nord (On the trail of Kim: A voyage into the heart of North Korea), told Asia Times. “We know he probably has chronic hereditary issues.”

Grandfather Kim Il Sung suffered from a huge tumor on his back/neck – which photographers were not allowed to capture – and by some reports died of apoplexy. The middle-generation ruler Kim Jong Il, father of Kim Jong Un, apparently suffered from diabetes and also suffered cardiovascular issues that resulted in his disappearance for several months.

“Two years before he died in December 2011, Kim Jong Il, in August 2008, went through a cardiovascular incident and was in a coma for several weeks,” Falletti said. “You had this phase of total silence from North Korea. We had no clue what had happened. We learned the story afterward from a French doctor who went to North Korea to examine him.”

Moreover, in 2014, Kim Jong Un himself disappeared for several weeks in 2014, apparently due to foot or heel surgery, which raised the question of whether he was suffering from gout.

In the smoke-and-mirrors world of North Korea, one expert questioned the veracity of the nascent reports.

“These are major state secrets and if Daily NK can come up with that kind of information, then US intelligence might have picked up some chatter from North Korean communications networks,” Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea watcher at Seoul’s Asan Institute told Asia Times. “Or, their information could just be the Daily NK article.”

A National Security Agency listening station is, indeed, set inside a secure compound on Camp Humphrey’s the main US base in South Korea. And Falletti suggested that if a Western doctor had been brought into the country to oversee Kim’s health, that person could also be a source of intelligence.

Succession possibility

The risk of Kim falling ill with no successor in place has always existed.

“The geopolitical risk of the health of the leader is crucial it is such a pyramidical system, if the leader passes away the entire system is impacted; there is a risk of a vacuum,” Falletti said. “That is the Achilles heel of the North Korean system.”

However, in the event of a crisis, there is another Kim on hand – and one who is already in a position of some authority: Kim Yo Jong.

She had been restored on Saturday to an alternate membership in the Politburo, a post she had vacated after failure of diplomatic efforts she’d been involved in with the US Trump administration. Most Pyongyang watchers would consider her the regime’s logical choice as a dynastic successor.

“This is the theory of succession in North Korea,” said Choi Jin-wook, a former head of the Korea Institute of National Unification and  currently a North Korea watcher at Seoul’s Hankook University of Foreign Studies. “Even though she is not a man, it would not be surprising if she took over the leadership.”

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