The following story originally ran in specialist media NKNews under the headline “Rumors explained: Is Kim Jong Un really in a coma? Will Kim Yo Jong take over?” It is reprinted in Asia Times with permission
Just when it seemed the rumor mill over North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s health had stopped churning, a new set of claims appeared in various news outlets over the past week. The latest claims are that Kim Jong Un is in a coma and he has partly transferred power to his sister, Kim Yo Jong.
The new round of reporting started on August 20, with news that the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) believed Kim had recently delegated authority to Kim Yo Jong and other top officials. But the source of that information was not revealed, and details were lost along the way in some media outlets’ coverage.
Later that same day, an aide to the late former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung posted his opinion on Facebook, stating that Kim Jong Un has been in a coma since early April and that all of his appearances since then have been faked by state authorities.
So is Kim Jong Un really in a coma — or even out of the public eye? And what’s behind the claims of more power for Kim Yo Jong, who has missed the two most recent gatherings of top party officials?
Did Kim Jong Un delegate power?
On August 20, ranking lawmaker of South Korea’s National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee, Ha Tae-keung, told reporters that Kim Jong Un delegated some authority to rule to Kim Yo Jong, partly due to “stress.”
Ha was reportedly briefed on the matter by the country’s intelligence agency, the NIS.
A few hours later, a press officer from the NIS clarified to reporters that the agency simply meant that more authority has been delegated to officials compared to the past, though the press officer also noted that Kim Yo Jong is “de facto second in command.”
Experts, however, said this is not something ground-breakingly new, despite all the media attention – nor a sign that Kim Jong Un is losing power or succumbing to health issues.
One possibility is that the spy agency was simply referring to recent changes in North Korean leadership: first, the statement by Kim Yo Jong in June – which relayed that her brother “authorized” her to make decisions on South Korea affairs – and second, the recent election of two new politburo presidium members.
“I do not see any fundamental differences in how decisions are made in North Korea,” said Martin Weiser, an independent researcher on North Korea politics. “Kim Jong Un will still have a veto in all decisions, and he should be regularly informed of other officials’ work.”
“Instead, it looks like a normalization of party affairs where the Presidium (of the ruling party Politburo) has five members with all four institutions – cabinet, military, party, Supreme People’s Assembly Presidium – having a representative,” Weiser added.
Lee Sang-sin, a researcher at the Korean Institute of National Unification (KINU), agreed. He described the NIS’ and Ha Tae-keung’s claim as “exaggerated,” saying that it’s too far-fetched for some pundits to use as explicit proof of Kim Jong Un’s health problems.
Lee said the three pillars of the North Korean political system are the party, the government and the military. Kim Jong Un is simply trying to strike a balance between these institutions, entrusting more responsibilities to top officials in charge of specific sectors as a way of running North Korea in a more “normal” communist manner, he argued.
In that sense, the NIS’ claim may not signal a true loss of power for Kim Jong Un.
“Kim Jong Un still retains absolute power and the final decisions in matters of core importance,” Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, told NK News.
However, Cheong added that top cadres are being given “significant autonomy in policy decisions” for their respective sectors, meaning that they would theoretically also more directly take the fall for any failures.
The ‘Kim Jong Un in a coma’ rumor – again
The rumor that Kim Jong Un is in a “coma” – no doubt a case of déjà vu from this past spring – hit the headlines again starting on the evening of August 20, only a few hours after the lawmakers conveyed what they learned from the NIS briefing.
While the intelligence committee briefing specifically mentioned that the delegation of authority seems “not related at all” to Kim Jong Un’s health, major South Korean and foreign outlets nonetheless went wild over the weekend, with rumors on Kim Jong Un being in a critical state of health.
Most of these articles picked up a Facebook post by Chang Song-min, the aforementioned aid to former President Kim Dae-jung. Chang already has a record of arguing that Kim Jong Un was on the verge of dying, quoting an unnamed “source in China” in April 2020.
On August 20, Chang wrote on his Facebook page that he still believes that Kim Jong Un’s leadership is “absent” at the moment, with Kim specifically “in a coma.” He also linked his theory to his earlier interpretation of the intelligence committee briefing, in which he claimed that Kim Jong Un “transferred his power” to his sister.
Chang further claimed that recent North Korean state media photos of Kim Jong Un all “look fake.”
The Korea Herald and other South Korean news organizations reported on Chang’s analysis. The news then quickly spiraled into another international rumor mill, with major foreign news outlets such as the New York Post and Fox News also linking together the coma rumor and rumors of Kim Yo Jong’s rise.
It appears that the latest round of rumors also caused some disturbance in South Korean government agencies.
For example, NK News understands that some security officers received intelligence that “Kim Jong Un fell into a coma during brain surgery” and that Kim Jong Il’s half-brother, Kim Pyong Il, took over in Pyongyang – all around the same time Chang posted his argument on Facebook.
Where exactly are the Kims, anyway?
Rumors over Kim Jong Un’s health first surfaced in April, after he was conspicuously absent from an annual event. Kim reappeared a few weeks later – though exhibiting signs of possible health issues – and continued through June to shy away from the public eye more than in the past.
But seemingly turning the tide, his appearances became more frequent again starting in July.
Chang claims recent photos of the North Korean leader are faked, doctored or manufactured. This begs the question: is it possible to prove Kim Jong Un appeared when and where state media claims he did?
In total, Kim has been photographed on 16 separate occasions since mid-April. His most recent outdoor appearance was to inspect flood damage earlier this month, but only still images were released by state media, making it more difficult to verify the visit’s authenticity.
However, undated visits to the construction sites of the Pyongyang General Hospital and the Kwangchon Chicken Farm, reported in late July, were captured on video, providing additional visual reference points.
An NK News analysis comparing the videos with commercially-available satellite imagery suggests that the visits likely took place just days prior to the state media reports – a conclusion made by matching the location of items on the ground and the stages of building construction.
Chang’s claim also implies that state media has faked all of the 16 appearances and that the North Korean government pre-planned and pre-filmed 10 political meetings attended by Kim, which were held in the presence of an ever-shifting lineup of top leadership positions.
Meanwhile, rumors that a body double replaced Kim for all appearances since April have also spread online. These are often accompanied by doctored before-and-after images of Kim Jong Un that erroneously purport to show physical differences.
But a review of high-resolution images of Kim published by state media throughout this year shows no discernible differences in minute facial features, meaning any body double would have to be a perfect reproduction.
Her absence could mean she lost her position as an alternate member of the ruling party Politburo, either as part of a demotion or even a shift to greater responsibilities.
But Kim Yo Jong’s absence also could have been due to more inconsequential reasons, such as an illness or extended business outside Pyongyang. The fact remains that neither the NIS nor outside observers have revealed concrete information on her current position or whereabouts.
So, only a future appearance in state media could possibly shed light on her status.