SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did not make his regular appearance in state media coverage of the country’s most important political holiday Wednesday, a highly unusual absence in the country’s methodical reporting of official events.
Judging from state media coverage, Kim made no public appearances during Wednesday's Day of the Sun holiday, which marks the birth anniversary of Kim’s grandfather, the country's late founding leader, Kim Il Sung.
Usually, the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper reports the day after the holiday that Kim visited the embalmed body of his grandfather, which is housed at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang.
However, Thursday’s paper mentioned only that other senior officials paid respects at the mausoleum, which also contains the embalmed body of Kim's father, Kim Jong Il.
Is coronavirus a factor?
As with most developments in the highly secretive state, the reason for Kim’s absence is unclear. Some observers speculatively linked Kim’s nonappearance to the coronavirus, which North Korea claims to have completely kept out. Others were more cautious, saying Kim may be attempting to distance himself from his predecessors.
“It’s safe to say that his absence yesterday is strange. It clearly goes against North Korea's narrative that it's business as usual,” said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea specialist who teaches at King’s College London.
Like virtually every other country, North Korea has taken drastic coronavirus containment measures, including sealing its borders and temporarily quarantining thousands of people. North Korea’s claim that it is coronavirus-free, however, is widely disputed.
The 36-year-old Kim last appeared in public on Saturday at a meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party, where he called for a tougher response to the coronavirus. On Sunday, Kim skipped a key session of North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly.
It is not clear whether Kim was present Tuesday when Seoul says Pyongyang launched its latest barrage of short-range missiles. North Korean state media did not report on those launches, as it usually does, the following day.
“[Kim] has been pretty active these past few weeks, surrounding himself with multiple officials who had no masks on. It’s hard to believe he suddenly developed personal sensitivities toward the coronavirus," says Rachel Minyoung Lee, a Seoul-based North Korea analyst.
Change in tone
In the past, North Korea has held military parades or conducted provocations around the Day of the Sun. This year, though, state media coverage of the holiday has been subdued. Not only did Kim not visit the mausoleum, there were also no special state media editorials or reports of a national meeting, as is usual this time of year.
The change in tone may be part of a concerted effort by Pyongyang to further bolster Kim’s leadership and distinguish him from the legacies of his father and grandfather, said Lee, a former U.S. government open-source intelligence analyst on North Korea.
“North Korea since late last year has made an effort to distance Kim Jong Un from his predecessors, apparently to highlight [Kim] on his own merit … so what we're seeing now tracks with that trend,” she said.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Kim’s public debut, which followed the unexpected death of his father, Lee said. “State media could be paving the way for further bolstering Kim Jong Un’s leadership in the leadup to that anniversary, as well as the party's 75th founding anniversary in October,” she added.
Andray Abrahamian, who focuses on North Korea as an adjunct senior fellow at the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum, agreed that Kim "has definitely attempted to convey to international interlocutors that he is not merely a scion and is his own man."
“Portraying that to a domestic audience is an entirely different thing though," he said.
North Korea has tried for decades to create a mythology and personality cult around the ruling Kim family. The youngest Kim has sometimes taken his own approach, though, for example telling authorities last year to stay away from the "mystification" of their leader.
Since 2018, Kim has also engaged in a series of unlikely diplomatic meetings, including meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump. During some of those public appearances, the portly Kim has at times appeared out of breath, leading some to speculate about his health, but there is no evidence he is sick.
“My best guess is he shows up again soon, nothing is ever mentioned in North Korean media, [South Korean] intel leaks some unverifiable story in a month about how he caught the flu or had a corn removed and then we've all forgotten about it in a few months,” Abrahamian said.