As the mystery of Kim Jong Un’s failure to appear publicly since April 11 deepens, let’s consider a really tricky variation on the most creative of five theories Asia Times put forth earlier this week.
Theory #1 started out surmising that Kim Jong Un had noticed that his erstwhile pal Donald Trump was desperate to come up with accomplishments that Trump could show off in a reelection campaign – a campaign severely impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic and accompanying recession or depression.
Kim also had noticed the American killing of General Qassem Soleimani of Iran on January 3, followed by increasingly tough Trump administration talk about North Korea.
Kim, according to Theory #1, feared that his own grandfather Kim Il Sung’s 108th birth anniversary on April 15 might be Trump’s choice of the most favorable day to wag the dog – distracting American voters by ordering the killing of the North Korean leader at one of the usual venues for tribute to the founder.
Thus, Theory #1 concluded, Kim the 3d took the precaution of calling off events and went into hiding in his vast network of tunnels.
What we’ll do now is expand upon that to come up with Theory #1.5. Assume all of the above and add the following:
Having begun his disappearance, Kim from his tunnel hideout deployed a hidden asset: a North Korean mole who, pretending to be a secret dissident, had signed on as an anonymous news source for Daily NK.
Daily NK is a Seoul-based news organization founded partly by defectors that gives its secret sources inside North Korea Chinese cell phones – with which they can communicate with Seoul via the cellular system across the border in China.
Kim, let us postulate, had the mole tell Daily NK that he, Kim, had undergone cardiovascular surgery but the surgery had been successful and he was recuperating at his villa in Hyangsan. The mole dutifully passed this along. Daily NK, believing its source, published the story that started the whole uproar.
Why would Kim carry out such a disinformation campaign? What could he gain?
Kim besides his tunnels has many above-ground villas to hide out in and moves around frequently among those hideouts to avoid being targeted.
By broadcasting his supposed whereabouts he might have wanted to test Trump’s intentions. Would the US president give the order for a drone or other attack at the Hyangsan villa while Kim was known to be more or less immobilized there?
After that news came out, “rumint” (rumor intel) details emerged suggesting the entire top level of leadership might be right there with Kim at the Hyangsan villa holding a meeting. This could have made the the villa an even juicier target in case Trump was interested. We don’t need to figure out whether those new details ultimately emanated from a Pyongyang disinformation project.
In any case, nothing happened. No US attack.
Now, maybe Kim can relax just a little and continue his testing of new weapons, without so much fear of the wall opening up behind his easy chair to admit a drone that would bring his world crashing down.
Too far out?
But … but … but isn’t such a scheme – admittedly the product of using a novelist’s imagination to tie the known facts together – too wild, too out there, to be real, even when we’re talking about one of the always weird Kim Dynasty’s champion weirdos?
Actually, no. There’s precedent.
In 1986 North Korean loudspeakers at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea broadcast that President Kim Il Sung had been killed.
South Korea publicly announced Kim’s reported death and placed its military on alert, but did not attempt to occupy the North. The loudspeaker announcements ceased and Kim Il Sung, who was 74 at the time and very much alive, made a public appearance — hugely embarrassing the South’s government.
Kim lived for eight more years. No explanation ever came from the Pyongyang regime.
The official South Korean theory on that incident at the time was that it was a head fake intended to gauge how neighboring countries and the United States would respond to the eventual death of Kim Il Sung.
So there’s Theory #1.5.
I lean toward thinking Kim Jong Un probably is alive, probably did undergo surgery and probably has recovered or is recovering as well as we could expect in the case of a 300-pound, five-foot-seven smoker and heavy drinker who has trouble breathing when he climbs stairs.
If reports that Kim’s been meeting with his top aides at his Hyangsan villa turn out to be true, we can then rule out Theory #1.5. He wouldn’t stay there if he were testing whether Trump would attack there.
He may be busy dealing with a new North-South Korea situation created by the leftist Seoul regime’s huge win in elections held on – that special day again – April 15.
And/or he may be trying to cope with a developing Covid-19 epidemic – which, if indeed it has come, no doubt is overwhelming his country’s primitive (for most people other than the Kim family) medical system.
Veteran Asia correspondent Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, a history, and of the North Korea-set novel Nuclear Blues.