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

At last there is a bit of clarity about what Washington knows and doesn’t know about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s situation.

US General John Hyten, vice-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked in a Pentagon briefing for reporters late Wednesday to comment on reports that Kim had undergone surgery and perhaps was still undergoing treatment.

“I can tell you that in the intel I don’t have anything to confirm or deny anything along those lines,” Hyten replied. “I assume that Kim Jong Un is still in full control of the Korean nuclear force and the Korean military forces. I have no reason not to assume that,” he added.

So where is Kim and why hasn’t he made any public appearances since April 11?

The fact that the Pentagon official could not confirm or deny that Kim had surgery doesn’t signify that he did not. The initial report by Seoul-based news organization Daily NK that started the rumor mill turning, the one that said Kim had undergone surgery on April 12 and was recuperating in a villa with his aides, could still turn out to be correct in important details.

Some may see the US general’s comments as tending to cast doubt on more dramatic later news reports that Kim’s condition had turned “grave.”

If the North Korean dictator were in danger of dying or had died already, it would seem likely after so long a time as ten days that Washington with all its intelligence resources would have noticed a change from business as usual.

Let’s go back to the statement Tuesday from South Korea’s presidential Blue House saying Kim was “with his aides” and was “carrying out normal duties.” The Blue House did not mention Kim’s state of health, nor the source of its information.

Perhaps adding some details to that picture is a well-placed anonymous source who told me he’d heard indirectly this rumor intel, or “rumint”, tidbit:

“A Chinese government person had told the [South] Korean government that Kim Jong Un had indeed had surgery but it was not major, and KJU is convalescing at a mountain villa and has called a meeting of high-ranking officials to discuss what policy should be in the future given that [South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s] administration now has a big majority in the National Assembly – 180 of 300 seats; they take office May 30.”

This information is unconfirmed, of course, but it’s plausible. Pyongyang had sidetracked South Korea’s Moon administration for months, playing more to Kim’s supposed friendship with US President Donald Trump. Whether Kim had surgery or not, it is indeed time for the regime to take a new look at the South.

Now with a 60% supermajority, Moon may be in a position to pass laws that members of his party want, laws that Pyongyang also would like to see enacted in South Korea.

One unsubstantiated Twitter rumor explaining Kim Jong Un’s non-appearance lately is that he caught Covid-19 from a Chinese surgeon. It was almost certainly tweeted as a prank, but note this combination photo created on March 13 from photos released by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency showing Kim attending drills. As he watches his troops firing rockets, artillery and projectiles, one of the many things that mark Kim out from the lesser beings alongside him is his coronavirus mask: It isn’t there. Photo: AFP / STR / KCNA VIA KNS

There are also growing reports that the coronavirus may be hitting North Korea harder than previously reported, and a meeting of the North Korean leadership could be expected to focus on that internal issue as well.

Internal and North-South issues could come together if the Pyongyang leadership during such deliberations – if indeed they’re taking place – should contemplate asking Seoul for greatly expanded aid tied to the virus.

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