With few solid facts to go on, it is back to reading the runes from North Korea, which is not a good place to start from. Speculation about Kim Jong-un — his whereabouts, his health, even his survival — has been spurred by his absence from two national events: the birthday commemoration on 15 April for his grandfather and North Korea’s first leader, Kim Il-sung, and Military Foundation Day 10 days later.
To miss one of these days would have raised questions; to miss both sent the rumour-mill spinning. Add in the coronavirus pandemic and the fact that Kim hardly looks super-fit at the best of times, and there was already a temptation — even before talk of an emergency delegation of Chinese doctors and the leader’s personal trainer — to conclude that Kim Jong-un was already dead.
In many Western and North Korean exile quarters, there is already a good deal of wishful thinking about a post-Kim Korea turning into a land of the free. So here is a tedious word of warning to those who would dance (prematurely) on Kim’s grave to be careful for what they wish for.
The summary departure of Kim might, in time, improve life for North Koreans, defuse tensions on and around the Korean Peninsular and make the world a better place. But this will not necessarily occur and, at least in the short term, it could make a generally bad situation worse.
Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Chong-il, but it was not until the election of Donald Trump that he got his moment on the world stage. Trump’s agreement to the summit was something Kim Jong-un craved and the result was an almost immediate relaxation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. There was also an unprecedented North-South Korean summit at Panmunjom in the De-Militarised Zone.
It is true that some of this thaw has not lasted. North Korea has resumed its nuclear programme and relations with the South have cooled. But a relationship of sorts was established; a channel remains open between Washington and Pyongyang, and the occasional missile test no longer provokes the trembling it did. Without Kim, though, the tension could soon return.
This is because it has never been clear how far North Korea’s emergence from the cold — even to the limited extent it succeeded — was personal to Kim and Trump or how far it was institutionalised in Pyongyang. Both leaders, in fact, seem to favour personal and family diplomacy with Kim bringing his sister, Kim Yo-jong — now a potential successor — to prominence
There is a real question about how far the US-North Korea rapprochement could survive Kim Jong-un’s sudden departure. And for all that his adversaries abroad might pin their hopes on an instant outbreak of peace and friendship, this is not the only, or most likely, scenario. As with the demise of any non-democratic leader, the risk of a vacuum of authority is hastily followed by an ugly struggle for power. The more contentious and personal a particular policy — in this case the opening to the US — the less likely it would be to survive. In that event, the near-decade of Kim Jong-un could be seen in retrospect as considerably more positive than it looks now.
For the time being, practised rune-readers in South Korea and the US insist that they have observed nothing unusual in the North. Nor is an extended absence without precedent; Kim returned after a month of invisibility in 2014. And, of course, he could just be following advice to “self-isolate”. In a country as opaque as North Korea, however, the absence of the leader has a de-stabilising effect, which can persist even if and when he returns.