Rumors run rife about the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Photo: AFP/STR/KCNA via KNS

It’s a subject the foreign media have focused on recently: Kim Jong Un’s health. Is he dead? Dying? Perhaps in a coma?

Kim has not been seen in public for nearly three weeks and questions surrounding his health have gripped the world.

In a country where authorities tightly control information, it’s always a question about to what extent do people in North Korea know what’s going on. Our undercover sources inside the country help the Seoul-based news outlet Daily NK, where I work, gauge the overall level of awareness among North Korean citizens. 

Let’s start with some basic information on what we know regarding Kim Jong Un’s current health condition. 

Daily NK was the first media outlet to report on Kim’s recent health developments. But the original story was quickly manipulated by other media organizations and blown way out of proportion.

The original article never said Kim was “gravely ill,” on the verge of dying, clinically dead, brain dead, vegetative, in a coma or anything of the sort.

What it did say was that Kim was believed to have undergone a cardiovascular procedure on April 12 and was receiving post-op care at his holiday home afterwards. 

Other details were that Kim underwent the operation at Hyangsan Hospital, an exclusive hospital designated for Kim family members. It specializes in treating heart conditions, a smart choice given the Kim family’s history with cardiovascular problems.

According to a Daily NK source, the hospital boasts state-of-the-art equipment imported from Japan and Germany. The doctor who operated on Kim is also said to have received special training in Germany.

“The doctor is reportedly so prized by the leadership that he lives in a carefully guarded section of Pyongyang and travels with his own bodyguards,” according to a Daily NK story quoting that source. 

For now, this is as much as we know about Kim’s operation. His current health condition remains largely unknown. 

What North Korean media say 

North Korean state and ruling party media have made no mention of Kim’s health since his disappearance. In fact, they have not reported anything unusual. No photos of Kim have been published since April 11, when he led a meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party’s central committee’s political bureau.

The North Korean media also did not make a big deal of Kim’s absence from Day of the Sun celebrations, a highly important national holiday commemorating Kim Il Sung’s birthday. 

Still, despite the lack of photos, the leader’s name has been mentioned several times in recent weeks by the media. The Rodong Shinmun, the Workers’ Party daily newspaper, published several articles referencing some of what it described as Kim’s recent actions.

Kim Jong Un was said to have sent a birthday message to Cuba’s president on April 21 and a thank you letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who had congratulated Kim on the Day of the Sun, on April 22. Other reports on Kim conveying gifts to honored citizens were also published. 

More recently, state media reported on two messages sent by Kim on April 27. The first was a message of appreciation to workers building a tourist zone in the east coast region of Wonsan.

Later that day, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Kim sent a telegram to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on the occasion of Freedom Day, congratulating the country for “achieving freedom” and defeating apartheid. 

Reactions in Pyongyang 

Even though the North Korean media have not reported anything out of the ordinary, among Pyongyang’s elite there’s concern that something may indeed be very wrong.

According to Daily NK sources, North Korean government and party officials in Pyongyang became concerned that their leader may be suffering from health problems. Many cadres came to suspect that Kim’s prolonged disappearance may be the result of a heart condition or joint-related ailment. 

The rumors of Kim’s death or dire health status have made their way to many of the country’s elite, but very few believe the Supreme Leader has actually died. Instead, they suspect he may be receiving medical treatment somewhere outside the capital city.

The health rumors have also raised speculation concerning Kim’s doctors and whether they really are qualified to treat the country’s leader. 

Mystery video

Although Pyongyang’s elite had seemed rather well-informed earlier, reports from outside only recently reached the provinces. Now, according to Daily NK’s sources, the rumors surrounding Kim’s health are quickly spreading in border regions due to a fake video allegedly distributed from China that began to circulate last week. 

Made to resemble closely an official Korean Central Television news report, the video featured fake reporters describing the death of Kim Jong Un. According to the five-minute video, Kim died during a field trip to offer on-the-spot guidance on April 25 at 12:30am. It names his sister Kim Yo Jong as his successor.

Most foreign videos that make it into North Korea arrive via China. There’s no suggestion that the Beijing government had anything to do with disseminating this one.

Despite the video’s lack of authenticity, it has been spreading quickly. With the rumors becoming increasingly difficult to control, the country’s Ministry of State Security has partnered with local police in border provinces to increase crackdowns on citizens making international calls and sending text messages.

Regarding the succession question, Pyongyang’s elite do not seem too keen on Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister, whom much of the rest of the world thinks will almost certainly succeed her brother. Contrary to what many analysts believe, Daily NK sources say, the Kim bloodline is not the be-all and end-all of North Korean leadership. 

Some sources inside the country say that Pyongyang’s elite are much more concerned with living a comfortable life and would prefer a country run by the cabinet and overseen by a capable person who has “presence.”

Even though Kim’s sister has been widely featured by international media, her power at home is not as great as some imagine abroad. Our sources point to top officials who do not see Kim Yo Jong as a viable successor. 

Priority is getting by 

Despite the rumors spreading in the provinces, people there don’t seem too concerned. Why? Because they care more about figuring out where their next meal will come from than where Kim Jong Un is or what he’s doing.

The ongoing border blockade with China, a health measure, continues to negatively impact the lives of most people living in provinces. With mass food shortages, the prices of goods continue to rise sharply and many can no longer afford to buy daily necessities. 

The situation worsened when the government announced on April 17 that all “unnecessary” imports would be restricted until the end of this year as part of efforts to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Daily NK sources have also reported a recent hike in attempted defections among citizens living in border regions. “Given that people’s lives are getting worse, it will be impossible to stop people from defecting,” a Ryanggang Province-based source told Daily NK on April 24.

At present, Kim Jong Un’s health does not seem to be affecting the daily lives of most North Korean citizens. The media have continued reporting as usual and the government does not seem to be on the brink of collapse any time soon. 

Instead, the main focus continues to be the dire state of the economy. Sources inside the country paint a clear picture: the vast majority of citizens are far too busy trying to survive and don’t have time to worry about rumors. Right now, securing enough to eat is where most people’s focus lies.

Gabriela Bernal is the founder of The Peninsula Report, and is a translator at Daily NK. You can find her on Twitter: @gabrielabbernal.