SEOUL - Where is North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and why has he been absent from public view for more than two weeks? It’s the question everyone seems to be asking. The problem is, everyone has a different answer.
Depending on which rumor you prefer, Kim is missing because he suffered an ankle sprain, had a kidney malfunction, underwent failed heart surgery, went into lockdown to avoid the coronavirus, or sustained injuries during a botched missile test.
And how is Kim now? According to the rumors, he is either in a coma and brain dead, actually dead, or walking around the eastern port city of Wonsan, where he has a private beach resort.
Over the past week, both tabloid magazines and reputable news outlets around the globe have published a comically diverse smorgasbord of Kim rumors — none of which are verified.
Though the rumors are abundant, and growing by the day, virtually nothing is known about the condition or whereabouts of Kim, who was last seen at a ruling party meeting in Pyongyang on April 11.
Explosion of rumors
Rumors began to simmer after Kim, an overweight 36-year-old cigarette smoker with a history of health problems, skipped public celebrations for his late grandfather, North Korea’s founding leader, whose birth anniversary on April 15 is a major holiday.
Quoting an anonymous source, the Daily NK, a Seoul-based website, last Monday reported Kim underwent heart surgery on April 12 and was recovering at a villa outside Pyongyang.
The rumors exploded after CNN the same day cited unnamed U.S. officials who said they were “monitoring intelligence” suggesting Kim is in “grave danger” after the surgery.
By Saturday, TMZ, a celebrity gossip and entertainment news website, reported Kim had died, setting off countless Internet jokes about the portly young leader.
North Korea quiet
North Korea has not responded to the rumors. Its state media have instead provided only passing indications — but no proof — that Kim is still conducting official business.
While there are non-extreme possibilities that explain Kim's absence, that has not stopped the rumors from spreading.
For some observers, the sheer number of rumors combined with the lack of a North Korean response is enough to conclude that Kim is sick or dead.
“I don’t know anything directly, but I’d be shocked if he’s not dead or in some incapacitated state,” Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham told Fox News on Sunday. “Because you don’t let rumors like this go forever or go unanswered in a closed society.”
But that is not the way North Korea has behaved in the past, says Rachel Minyoung Lee, a Seoul-based North Korea analyst.
“North Korea does not react to rumors about the leader's health,” says Lee, a former U.S. government open-source intelligence analyst on North Korea.
For instance, rumors about Kim’s health also circulated in 2014, when he was absent from public view for 41 days.
“North Korea did not issue any official reaction at the time, or in 2008, when [Kim’s father] Kim Jong Il was out for 51 days,” she says.
Kim Jong Un eventually resurfaced in 2014 using a cane; state media cryptically referenced he had experienced “discomfort,” but did not elaborate.
This time around, North Korean state media have also not addressed Kim's health directly. Instead, they have reported that Kim sent a series of personal notes to world leaders or groups of North Koreans.
South Korea has refuted the reports about Kim’s health. On Monday, South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who handles relations with Pyongyang, said Seoul has enough intelligence to confidently say there are “no unusual movements” in the North.
“Our government position is firm,” Moon Chung-in, special adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, told Fox News. “Kim Jong Un is alive and well. He has been staying in the Wonsan area since April 13. No suspicious movements have so far been detected."
Lending weight to those reports, satellite images from last week showed that a train “probably belonging to Kim” was parked at Wonsan at an area that services Kim’s nearby compound, according to 38 North, a U.S.-based group that monitors North Korea.
Reuters reported last week that China recently sent a delegation, including medical professionals, to North Korea to advise on Kim. But on Monday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Beijing has no information to offer regarding Kim.
Another piece of circumstantial evidence: North Korea’s capital saw a surge in panic buying for several days last week, especially of cleaning supplies and imported foods.
The surge began last Monday, according to a source in Pyongyang who spoke to VOA. But the panic buying may not have been related to the Kim rumors — the source added, citing talk of an extended coronavirus-related lockdown.
North Korea has insisted it has no coronavirus cases, though experts almost unanimously say that is impossible.
It is not clear if the rumors about Kim’s health have reached North Korea, one of the world’s most closed societies that has an extreme system of censorship.
Experts stress caution
Without confirmation from Pyongyang, many longtime Korea watchers warn against any firm conclusions.
“Over the years, there have been many false reports exclaiming the declining health or death of Kim Jong-un, his father Kim Jong-Il, and his grandfather Kim Il-sung,” says Bruce Klingner, a North Korea specialist at the Heritage Foundation. “Kim Jong-un may be one chocolate wafer away from a heart attack — but there are no indications that he is checking out.”
Andray Abrahamian, who focuses on North Korea as an adjunct senior fellow at the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum, says when it comes to news about North Korea, “demand is high and information from on the ground is always low.”
“Did something happen with Kim Jong Un’s health this month? Probably. Do we know what that is? Not really,” he says. “Reasonable speculation about this has turned into a maelstrom of fake news, thinly sourced hyperbole and echo-chambers.”