Everybody noticed that Kim Jong Un was absent Wednesday, the Day of the Sun, from tributes to his late grandfather, the dynasty’s founder Kim Il Sung, who would have been 108.
But for Pyongyang-watching circles it was the excellent Seoul-based Daily NK that added details that have intensified the mystery. Daily NK gets information directly from people inside North Korea who are close enough to the Chinese border to use Chinese cellular phone networks.
Daily NK reported: “’On Monday night, 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 Apr. 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.”
The initial reaction among us North Korea watchers was, to quote one, “Scratching my head.”
Of course in short order we all needed to have our theories ready to dispense, because watching and analyzing that hard-to-penetrate country is what we do and what we get paid for.
I hereby offer five theories, three of them the common wisdom you could hear from other analysts of various stripes and two that I more or less dreamed up myself. My ranking is based on creativity. I give 5th, 4th and 3d place to the usual suspects and 2d and 1st place to the ones that come from and appeal to the novelist in me.
#5: Coronavirus spread
This theory holds that North Korea, which has claimed to have no coronavirus victims, in fact has so many that Kim and company, shocked at how badly things were going, decided on their version of a lockdown.
Seeming to back this version, suggesting a sense of crisis as officials tried to deal with effects of the pandemic, is this paragraph of the Daily NK story:
“The country had already canceled the April Spring Friendship Art Festival and the Pyongyang Marathon, which have traditionally been held to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s birthday.”
So there was continuity along a range of responses – as in Japan, where sports events were canceled or made live-spectator-free, starting with sumo, until finally the Olympics had to be postponed.
Another paragraph refers to a travel ban responding to the pandemic: “The authorities have reportedly continued to stress the ban on travel while local police and inminban [neighborhood minders] have been ordered to conduct strict surveillance to ensure all households in their districts follow the ban.”
While this theory is, relatively speaking, on the boring side, it’s the one that probably has the most backing in known fact.
#4: Kim’s own health
Kim Jong Un, this theory goes, is sick, or even dead, perhaps from complications of the new coronavirus.
Various news organizations emphasized Kim Jong Un’s absence from the events that were held, which might hint he was indisposed.
Indisposition would be consistent with the fact that a photo from a ceremony at the mausoleum of his grandfather and his father, Kim Jong Il, published in the party daily Rodong Shinmun, showed a flower arrangement with a banner indicating it had been sent in Kim Jong Un’s name.
We’ve speculated on Jong Un’s health for years as he’s bloated himself up into a facsimile of his grandfather, smoking all the while, audibly out of breath when he met US President Donald Trump in the Demilitarized Zone.
But if his physical condition had been growing worse recently, wouldn’t his sister Kim Yo Jong – the only likely near-term dynastic successor out there, and thus the next face we might see addressing the nation if Kim Jong Un has passed on – have received a full Workers’ Party Politial Bureau membership instead of the alternate membership she got the other day for the second time?
Note that Kim Jong Un himself was featured in state media just this past weekend, when he was healthy enough to preside over a meeting of that (very same) Politburo on Saturday. So maybe he had decided to practice and/or model social distancing and stay away from the rites.
#3: Makeover for Kim
Kim Jong Un is trying to change his image, blur the dynastic lines and turn himself into his own man. That’s a theory that the French wire service Agence France Presse likes. In a Thursday dispatch it quotes a couple of Pyongyang watchers as supporting it.
“Kim Jong Un wants to break away from the past, as well as the North’s traditional cult of personality,” said one of them, Ahn Chan-il, described as a North Korean defector and a researcher in Seoul. “His message is that Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung’s times are now over,” he told AFP.
“He wants to come across and brand himself as a leader who is modern and competent, rather than a descendant of his predecessors. And he wants to gradually tone down the idolization of the two late leaders as it goes against his agenda to brand the North as a ‘normal state.'”
My problem with this is we’ve heard it so many times before, regarding not only Kim Jong Un but also, starting four decades ago, his father, Kim Jong Il, who was always seen by some optimistic engagers abroad as about to become a reformer – right up to the time he died, having done precious little to change the system that he’d inherited and that he bequeathed to his son.
Let me put it bluntly. If a young man such as Kim Jong Un, through reverse diet and plastic surgery and strategic barbering and tailoring, has been made into a replica of his revered grandfather, and if that young man should want all of a sudden to change his image and show himself to be independent, not the third in the Kim family dynasty, wouldn’t reversal of his cosmetic alterations be the likely first step?
In fact his recent pictures show no such transformative changes. Thus, theory #3 I’d have to dismiss as wishful thinking, which gets us to:
#2: Coup d’etat
Kim Jong Un, dead or alive, is out – purged in a coup d’etat – but those in charge didn’t have suffficient confidence in their success, or in the security of their plotting, to plan in advance how to explain this to the North Korean public and the rest of the world. We must wait and see.
This theory could fit with another paragraph from the Daily NK story: “Daily NK sources also reported that the authorities ordered factories to create units of two to three people to protect nearby statues of the country’s leaders during a ‘special security week'” lasting from 3 pm on April 14 to just now, 6 pm Korea time on April 16.
What were the cited “authorities” seeking to protect against?
Alas, there’s no real evidence here. I feature coup plotters against Kim in my novel, so naturally this theory occurred to me. But there’s one more that has an even nicer twist – even as it leaves Kim-watchers still employed for a while longer.
#1: Hiding out
Kim Jong Un noticed that his erstwhile pal Donald Trump had pretty much lost his number one reelection platform plank, a thriving economy; was not going to get to face his favored opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders; and was becoming an American laughing stock for his 5 o’clock follies performances holding forth on the virus.
A desperate Trump, therefore, Kim could see, was in dire need of accomplishments.
Kim also couldn’t help noticing the American drone-killing of General Qassem Soleimani of Iran on January 3, followed by increasingly tough Trump administration talk (right up through Wednesday) about North Korea.
Never forget that a North Korean, high or low, can’t be too paranoid for his own good. The national motto might just as well be, “They are out to get you!”
Kim, not without logic, feared that his own grandfather’s 108th birth anniversary might be Trump’s choice of the most favorable day to wag the dog, distracting American voters by sending a drone to kill the North Korean leader at one of the usual venues for ceremonial tribute to the founder. Thus, Kim the 3d took the precaution of calling off events and going into hiding in his vast network of tunnels.
Bradley K. Martin is a veteran Asia-based journalist and a historian of North Korea (Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty). His near-future novel Nuclear Blues is set in North Korea and features Kim Jong Un.