World

Where’s Kim, and why does it matter?

By J Brooks Spector 13 October 2014

The month-long disappearance of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, from any public view has set the rumour mill turning, especially since high-level envoys from that usually hermit-like country have been popping up all over the place. Oh, and did we remember to mention that North Korea has been hard a work, developing nuclear weapons? Cause for concern? J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.

In between worrying about Ebola, the depredations of the Islamic State, the collapse of Libya, Ukraine’s on-going civil conflict, Hong Kong’s freedom demonstrations, miscellaneous gigantic cyclonic storms in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, racial strife in various parts of the US, the rise of Britain’s UKIP, and a growing list of corrosive political scandals and financial malfeasances in South Africa, Daily Maverick readers might also want to save a little space to worry about the whereabouts of North Korea’s hereditary communist ruler, Kim Jong-un.

Now why should one worry about that last one, given that all the other crises are already sufficient to give one a near-terminal case of the heebie-jeebies or mortal dread for the future? Well, for one thing, it should always be concerning when a national leader suddenly goes missing without explanation – beyond a vague reference to some minor illness. (Various African nations have had that experience and it almost inevitably has been unsettling for the country concerned, its neighbours, and the leader concerned.) Such circumstances can be part of the disorder that leads to insurrection, civil war, foreign intervention – or even opportunistic attacks against neighbouring states by one of the sides in that ensuing domestic struggle, in order to attract foreign intervention.

And then there is the question of clear and effective control over weapons, say barrel after barrel of weapons like sarin or phosgene gas. Without rock-solid control protocols, the absence of clear top-line leadership leads to concerns about where all that stuff is located, who controls it, or what’s going to happen to it in the ensuing civil disorder. (The story is, for example, that there were some highly specialised teams that were dispatched to Libya after the fall of Qaddafi to track down and regain control over high-tech missiles and other weapons – to try to head off any distribution to insurrectionist movements elsewhere.)

And so this is where the crux of the question of where in the world is Kim Jong-un is located. Over the past decade or so, North Korea has developed a number of missiles capable of delivering significant payloads to distances of almost two thousand miles from the launch site. The circumference of that range would include the capitals of China, South Korea and Japan, just for starters, as well as significant bits of American and Russian territory. And then there is the fact that North Korea has carried out a couple of nuclear weapons tests as well (Some experts are not convinced North Korea actually succeeded in fully testing a nuclear device. But, even a so-called dirty conventional bomb of radioactive material delivered by missile would be a terrible weapon in the hands of an unstable government.)

Marry a modest nuclear device (or a dirty bomb) to one of those Tae Podong missiles and that becomes a recipe for something that keeps national leaders up nights all over East Asia – most especially when it is not clear who has the command, communication and control over the rockets or the launch codes for the nukes. And that is why the whereabouts of Kim Jong-un, “The Young Leader”, has become such a serious question for everyone in Northeast Asia not living in Pyongyang.

Specifically, Kim has not been spotted publicly since 3 September, when he and his wife attended a concert together. Then, on the anniversary day of the founding of North Korea’s ruling party, an event that has traditionally merited very visible, very pomp-and-circumstance-style appearances by the appropriate member of the Kim dynasty, this time around, a simple wreath was laid at a memorial, in his name.

Commenting on this, the Washington Post noted, “The mystery surrounding the whereabouts and status of Kim Jong Un deepened on Friday, when the North Korean leader missed a celebration for the 69th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party. It is now more than five weeks since Kim was last seen in public, and his absence, coupled with surprisingly frank official reports that he is suffering from ‘discomfort,’ has sparked rumours of maladies ranging from obesity to overthrow. As with most things concerning North Korea, the truth remains far from clear. But the state-run Korean Central News Agency notably left Kim’s name off a list of dignitaries who paid their respects early Friday to his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, at the mausoleum where their bodies lie.”

There has apparently been no other public recognition of “The Young Leader” in recent weeks, other than that announcement he was suffering some discomfort – perhaps to imply he was taking some time off to heal up. But heal up from what? Given his apparent fondness for chain smoking and hard cheeses, some visible pudginess and rumours that he has gout, one suggestion is that he has had some kind of ankle or foot surgery.

But there has been an alternative explanation mentioned as well. Jang Jin-sung, a former senior official for Kim Jong Il regime who defected south in 2004, has been publicly speculating that there had actually been a coup in Pyongyang.

The New Yorker made the point of showing just how difficult it has been for outsiders to get a handle on “The Young Leader” since he took over from his father. As the magazine noted, “Kim Jong-un is a most elusive man. Until a year before he became North Korea’s leader, in 2011, nobody knew his age or the correct spelling of his name, and no one had seen a photograph of him as an adult. A Japanese television station mistakenly aired a photograph of an overweight South Korean construction worker it claimed was heir to the North Korean throne. All that changed after his father, Kim Jong Il, died. After a respectable period of bereavement, Kim Jong-un became the most photographed man in North Korea, and his image became familiar around the world. There he was, strolling with his photogenic wife, sitting on a horse, inspecting factories, riding a roller coaster at Pyongyang’s funfair, hanging out with Dennis Rodman. And now, suddenly, he has vanished again.”

In the meantime, there have been a variety of sudden, unexpected visits abroad by senior DPRK officials – although like so much else North Korean, the connections of these visits to The Young Leader’s disappearance from the public eye have been very hard to parse. For example, at the recent Asian Games that took place in the South Korean city of Incheon, three of North Korea’s most powerful men suddenly popped up on 4 October for the closing ceremony.

While this was the third trip south of the 38th parallel for Kim Yang Gon, North Korea’s go-to guy on the North’s relations with the South, it was the first for Choe Ryong Hae, a man sometimes believed to be Kim Jong-un’s closest aide, or at least until he had – apparently – been purged a few months back. Now he seems back in the thick of things. But the most astonishing visitor to show up in Incheon was Hwang Pyong So.

Hwang is the head of the political bureau of the Korean People’s Army and he has generally assumed to be the country’s second-in-command. Just how poorly North Korean politics is understood by outsiders is seen from the fact that it remains unclear to outsiders as to who takes over if Kim is incapacitated – or even who he gives orders to when he wants send off yet another rocket test to thoroughly rattle the South Koreans or Japanese.

Considering all of this, the Economist mused, “Mr Hwang’s sudden appearance in the South has some wondering who wields ultimate power in the North. Mr Hwang has been promoted five times this year, an ‘unprecedented, almost scary’ rise…. He gained his most senior title yet, that of vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission—the North’s top executive body, headed by Mr Kim—at the very gathering from which Mr Kim was absent.”

Close observers of these events say that, curiously, the travellers had no particular message to convey to their counterparts. Regardless, they received a warm welcome by the South Korean unification minister. Hwang conveyed Kim’s “heartfelt greetings” to President Park Geun-hye – a person the North Koreans had been speaking rather less kindly about just a short while earlier. They also met Kim Kwan-jin, the South Korean president’s national security advisor, as well as the South’s prime minister, Chung Hong-won. One outcome of this sudden, and presumably unexpected drop-by was a bilateral agreement for a new round of talks.

On the surface, this would seem to represent a modest tectonic shift in the generally wretched North-South relations that have been the case since President Park took office. After all, earlier in the year, North Korea had fired off rockets into waters surrounding the peninsula, and there had been an unremitting propaganda offensive with President Park as its primary target.

Now, some analysts are speculating that the reason for this visit is that the North is trying to patch things up a bit with the South because Pyongyang’s relations with China have started to go “south” in the meantime. As evidence of the latter, neither North Korean nor Chinese media bothered to note the 65th anniversary of the two countries’ fraternal ties. Analysts also argue North Korea may also need to restart some trade and currency flows into the North – most especially from the lowering of trade sanctions and the reestablishment of those hard-currency-earning tours by southerners to Mount Kumgang, where the special resort there has been off limits to southerners since a North Korean soldier killed a South Korean tourist, some six years ago.

Commenting on this unexpected visit, as well as several other diplomatic forays that have taken place in recent days, the Economist noted, “no one as senior as Mr Hwang has ever visited South Korea before, says Michael Madden, who runs “North Korea Leadership Watch”, a blog. Mr Hwang arrived in full military garb and on Mr Kim’s personal plane. Sending its heavyweights for snaps with foreign officials makes North Korea look “more like a sovereign state, less like a gangster fiefdom”, says Robert Kelly of Pusan National University. North Korea is burnishing its image elsewhere, too. Last month its foreign minister attended the UN’s General Assembly, for the first time since 1999, and in Europe a senior diplomat even met the EU’s top human-rights official.”

Once the trio of high-level visitors had departed the South, there quickly were calls in the South Korean political world for a tangible response to this visit. Members of the country’s ruling party’s parliamentary delegation called for the lifting of those trade sanctions that had been introduced in 2010 after a South Korean naval vessel had been torpedoed by the North, with a death toll of forty-six naval personnel.

Still, the jubilee has not quite arrived. After the visit, the two countries navies exchanged fire when a Northern patrol boat crossed a disputed maritime boundary. As a result, various analysts are arguing that this all of this has simply been yet another cycle of North Korean international forays to build up expectations for the good stuff and the possibilities of some sort of more peaceful relationship on the peninsula, only to have it come crashing down all over again in a new wave of hostile acts, belligerence and harsh public statements.

But what with the absence of the country’s leader from the public space, with those rumours about coups, and the rather puzzling, surprise visit to South Korea by the second most powerful man in Pyongyang; the sense of uncertainty about who is really pulling the strings in the North has become a matter of concern for everyone in Northeast Asia who worries about North Korea’s erratic mood swings. And that, of course, is further heightened by any understanding about what could possibly lead somebody in the DPRK government to decide to launch one of those missiles towards a neighbour, just to win some sort of abstruse political point back home about who’s really got his finger on the button. DM

Photo: North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un holds up his ballot during the fifth session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea at the Mansudae Assembly Hall in Pyongyang April 13, 2012, in this picture released by the North’s KCNA on April 14, 2012. REUTERS/KCNA

Read more:

  • Where is Kim Jong-un? At the New Yorker at the New Yorker magazine

  • News that Kim Jong-un has gout is no laughing matter. He does have a nuclear arsenal, remember at the Independent (UK)

  • The Koreas – Till Kimdom come. An unusual visit to South Korea by a powerful Northern trio raises plenty of questions at the Economist

  • The Incheon Visit, the most recent posting on the blog, North Korea – Witness to Transformation at Peterson Institute for International Economics website, by Stephan Haggard

  • North Korea’s Kim Jong Un misses key event at the Washington Post

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