North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s non-appearance at a critical national anniversary has fuelled speculation about his health and raised questions over succession plans in the secretive pariah state.
In a highly unusual move, Mr Kim was absent on April 15 from ceremonies marking the birth of Kim Il Sung, the country’s founding leader. It is one of the biggest events of the year in Pyongyang.
Asked about the reports, President Donald Trump said on Tuesday evening that the US did not know whether the information was accurate.
“We don’t know, we don’t know,” Mr Trump said, before adding that he had a “very good relationship” with Mr Kim. “I can only say this, I wish him well.”
Reports in recent days on Daily NK, a South Korea-based online publication, as well as the US broadcaster CNN, had suggested that his absence was due to the fact he had undergone urgent heart surgery. The Financial Times has been unable to confirm these reports and officials in Seoul and Beijing have played down speculation that he is ill.
Mr Trump cast doubt on the report from CNN, saying that he did not “place much credence” on news from the network. Mr Trump frequently refers to CNN as “fake news” because he dislikes its reporting.
Robert O’Brien, US national security adviser, said earlier in the day that the US was “closely monitoring” reports regarding Mr Kim’s health. “They’re parsimonious with the information that they provide about many things, including the health of Kim Jong Un. So we’re monitoring those developments closely,” he told Fox & Friends in an interview on Tuesday morning.
“We have nothing to confirm and there has been no unusual activity detected in North Korea,” said Kang Min-seok, a spokesperson for the presidential office in Seoul. Beijing was aware of the reports but did not believe Mr Kim was critically ill, according to Reuters.
The 36-year-old, who succeeded father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung as the head of the rogue state, is believed to have a firm grip on power. Experts advised caution as the dictator had previously missed important public events. But questions over the health of Mr Kim, overweight and a heavy smoker, have lingered for years.
“There has been credible evidence in the past to suggest that Kim may have underlying health issues, going back to early intelligence profiles of him before he took power, and trips to the country by western medical specialists including cardiologists . . . Given the opacity of North Korean politics and the potentially major implications for regime stability if Kim died or was incapacitated, the situation warrants monitoring,” said Andrew Gilholm, a Seoul-based analyst with consultancy Control Risks.
Mr Kim, who spent part of his youth in Europe, assumed power as the Supreme Leader of North Korea after the death of Kim Jong Il in 2011. He has made a series of international forays, including meeting US president Donald Trump three times, moving towards greater engagement with South Korea and starting to firm up his country’s alliance with Beijing.
But, like his father and grandfather, his leadership has an unmistakable brutal streak.
Kim Jong Nam, his half-brother, was assassinated in Malaysia in 2017. Four years earlier his uncle, one of the most powerful men in North Korea at the time, Jang Song Thaek was executed for treason.
Mr Kim has also overseen the rapid development of the country’s long-range missile and nuclear weapons programme, making security on the Korean peninsula a top foreign policy priority for the US.
The problems with his health, coupled with the purges of his close male relatives, underscores the potential for a power struggle.
Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based expert with the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, said succession in North Korea appeared to operate in a similar way to earlier Korean dynastic kingdoms, meaning a son “naturally would be the heir”, carrying on the family lineage — known as the Mount Paektu bloodline.
“It doesn’t seem like Kim has designated a successor yet because he’s still young and his children are very young. North Korea has not publicly revealed his children, especially their gender, so it’s unclear if he has a son . . . it even remains to be seen if his wife would be acting leader until his designated child is old enough to govern,” she said.
Rachel Lee, a former North Korea analyst in the US government, said if Mr Kim died within the next 10 to 15 years, his most likely successor would be his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong.
Kim Jong Un pictured in 2015, with his sister Kim Yo Jong behind © EPA
Ms Kim, who is believed to be an important adviser to her brother, gained international prominence when she was dispatched to attend the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018, becoming the first member of the Kim regime to visit the country since the Korean war.
“She could rule until she dies. She may pass over the reins to one of her children. She may simply act as a ‘place holder’ until one of Kim Jong Un’s children is old enough to assume the country’s leadership . . . upholding a non-Kim as the leader seems unthinkable in North Korea,” said Ms Lee.
However, some experts do not rule out the potential for a power struggle if there is no contingency plan in place.
“His sister is his closest confidante and she might fight to protect the regime, other Kim family relatives and military generals and party officials might jockey for power, China-backed North Korean elites might push for their own leader, some forces might try to bring back and elevate his nephew Kim Han Sol [currently in exile in a secret country],” said International Crisis Group’s Duyeon Kim.
Additional reporting by Kang Buseong in Seoul and Ryan McMorrow in Beijing