If North Korea was anything like a normal state, Kim Jong Un’s health would not be of much concern to anyone but him, his countrymen and, perhaps, a few neighbour states.
After all, how much attention is normally paid to the well-being of a leader whose country is 210th or dead last in the world according to GDP on a per capita basis?
Nobody seems to know whether the third Kim to rule North Korea is dead or alive today, though there is intense speculation that it is the former, or that if he is still alive that he is gravely ill.
There is only one reason that Kim’s heart problems get international attention. It is, of course, because North Korea has nuclear weapons, and regularly threatens to use them to annihilate its enemies, real and imagined.
Despite an astonishingly low $651 a year in annual per capita income and having never been shy about begging the world for food to avoid mass starvation, North Korea has an elaborate nuclear weapons-making industry and has missile delivery systems that can easily hit Japan and are capable of, or may soon be capable of, reaching western Canada.
Being able to successfully arm and aim such missiles is another matter altogether. But even having dodgy long-range missiles in its arsenal has given Kim the ultimate bargaining chip whenever he throws a temper tantrum over some perceived slight. It also causes apoplexy in South Korea and Japan, who constantly worry about what Kim might get up to.
The drama intensified last week amid Asian media reports that a team of Chinese doctors and Communist party officials had flown to Pyongyang to find out what is what. At the same time, China and South Korea have been insisting that the Great Leader is not even gravely ill.
Yet in a report that got wide circulation in South Korea and Asia, Seoul’s NK news agency, which specializes in covering North Korea, reported Kim underwent heart surgery on April 12. That was one day after his last public appearance at a government meeting and four days before he missed the important annual birthday commemoration of North Korea’s founder, Kim Jong Un’s state-revered grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, who like his son and grandson ran one of the world’s most brutal and secretive dictatorships.
During the Korean War, about 26,000 Canadians fought under U.S. General Douglas MacArthur and UN command on the Korean Peninsula. Five hundred and sixteen Canadians are buried there.
North Korea watchers seldom have first-hand information about what is going on there. With the north’s leadership so inscrutable, these experts are often reduced to analyzing which officials appear where and in what proximity to the country’s third Great Leader. Lacking much hard evidence they speculate. Endlessly.
Kim Jong Un has eliminated a slew of potential military rivals as well as his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, who was assassinated with a nerve agent at an airport in Malaysia. The leader is also believed to have had his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, executed seven years ago though it was even a bit rich for the official Korean Central News Agency to claim that Jang was killed for “half-heartedly clapping” for his nephew.
Along with South Korea and Japan, where there is an often paranoid interest in North Korean affairs, China is the country most interested in what goes on there.
Beijing, the only capital with anything like close ties to North Korea, cannot have been very happy with Kim for regularly threatening nuclear armageddon. There would be direct and indirect consequences for China from any war, nuclear or not, with the likelihood of many millions of refugees, as well as the unpredictable consequences that might follow in South Korea.
The Chinese would also probably have preferred that Kim had not met privately to talk peace with U.S. President Donald Trump. However, those three highly publicized meetings appeared to achieve very little and Kim and Trump still frequently throw verbal darts at each other.
After nine years in power, Kim is thought to only be 36 years old. Though there has always been a lot of chatter about his health since six years ago, when he disappeared from view for one month, it is not clear that North Korea has worked out an order of succession were he to die. This is particularly worrisome at a time when the world is narrowly focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and Pyongyang has released no news about how its people are faring.
If one of a gang of elderly generals is not chosen, a woman may finally run Kim’s family business. Until now, Kim Jong Un’s 31-year-old sister is the only potential dynastic heir apparent. At least she has not been murdered. In fact, she was made an alternative member of the politburo three years ago.
Whatever the true state of Kim’s physical or political health, there are no signs that North Korean, South Korean, U.S. or Chinese forces have gone on alert. That is a good thing for everyone. Better the devil you know.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas