US President Donald Trump, right, reaches out to shake hands with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un after taking part in a signing ceremony at the end of their historic US-North Korea summit on June 12, 2018. Photo: AFP
Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a summit meeting held in Vietnam, February 2019 Photo: AFP

When asked about the validity of reports that North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un had undergone surgery and was in poor health, US President Donald Trump just added another layer of confusion to a confused situation late on Tuesday (April 22).

Trump in his reply to a question at his daily coronavirus briefing disparaged one of his media betes noires, CNN, which had said the US was monitoring intelligence indicating Kim was in “grave danger after a surgery.”

However, by wishing Kim well and discussing the seriousness of his reported condition he appeared to leave open the possibility that he knew there was something to the reports.

Such a non-responsive White House comment has been termed by the media as a “non-denial denial” ever since since then-President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal in the 1970s.

It was Bret Baier of Fox News, Trump’s favorite network, who asked about the reports.

“Well, these are reports that came out, and we don’t know. We don’t know,” the president replied. “I’ve had a very good relationship with him. I wouldn’t – you know, I can only say this – I wish him well. Because if he is in the kind of condition that the reports say … that’s a very serious condition.

“But I wish him well,” he continued. “We’ve had a good relationship. I’ve said it. I’ve said it many times. If somebody else were in this position, we would have been, right now, at war with North Korea. And we’re not at war. And we’re nowhere close to war with North Korea.”

Trump continued: “I just have to say to Kim Jong Un, I wish him very good luck. Good luck. They came out with [a] very, very serious medical report. Nobody’s confirmed that. It was CNN that came out – so when CNN comes out with a report, I don’t place too much credence in it.”

CNN in its reports had quoted unnamed US officials. Trump of course is in a position to know whether what those officials were quoted as having said is fact, known to the US government. He did not deny it.

National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien was slightly more forthcoming when, according to the New York Post, he told reporters that the administration was “watching reports closely.”

“We are monitoring these reports very closely and as you know, North Korea is a very closed society, there is not a free press there, they are parsimonious with the information they provide on many things, including the health of Kim Jong Un,” O’Brien said. He added that the US intelligence community and Defense Department were watching the situation.

CNN in its first report Monday night quoted “a US official with direct knowledge.”

Bloomberg News in a 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 Monday report by Daily NK, a Seoul-based news service partially staffed by defectors and with contacts inside North Korea, quoting one such source as having said 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 quoted 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 a statement Tuesday: “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, on Tuesday 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.”