The United States does not know where North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is and is monitoring reports about his health, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this week, while warning that there was a high risk of famine in the isolated country if the coronavirus situation gets worse.
“We haven’t seen him. We don’t have any information to report today,” the secretary told Fox News Wednesday in response to a question about differing accounts regarding the 36-year-old Supreme Leader’s health after a long period in which Kim was not seen in public.
Pompeo said that the U.S. is not only looking into Kim’s health, but is keeping an eye out on the entire country during the global COVID-19 epidemic.
“They also have the risk of COVID there and there is a real risk that there will be a famine, a food shortage inside of North Korea, too. We’re watching each of those things closely, as they have a real impact on our mission set, which is to ultimately denuclearize North Korea,” said Pompeo.
Though Pompeo said the U.S. hasn’t recorded any Kim sightings, journalists have speculated, based on satellite imagery and sightings of specific vehicles, that he might be in or near Wonsan, a port city on the country’s east coast.
A diplomat in Pyongyang who asked not to be named told RFA’s Korean Service Wednesday that he assumed that based on South Korean reports, including an announcement from the Blue House, that Kim was in Wonsan. He added that he also heard that Kim’s luxury yacht had been spotted off Wonsan’s coast earlier this month.
The diplomat was unable to confirm if people are aware of the news regarding Kim Jong Un’s health, because diplomats in North Korea have limited contact with the North Korean people, and it would be impossible to directly discuss Kim Jong Un’s personal affairs with them.
But North Korea’s security department has launched a strong crackdown in the country against the spreading of rumors related to Kim’s health, according to the Japan-based Asia Press, a media outlet that focuses on North Korea news.
“Kim Jong Un has not been seen, and North Korean state media is not denying it,” Jiro Ishimaru, head of Asia Press, told RFA Wednesday.
“As rumors of Kim Jong Un’s health problems continue to spread from China, more and more people believe it. Maybe that’s why the North Korean security department suddenly launched a very serious crackdown, saying it is a groundless rumor,” he said.
According to Ishimaru, a source in the northern part of Ryanggang Province said that rumors that Kim suffered a botched surgery and died are also spreading among women in the local marketplaces. In response, the security department began searching for people who spread the rumors, labeling them fear mongers, and the situation there is tense.
Despite the lack of confirmed public information about Kim, during a plenary session of South Korea’s National Assembly Defense Committee on Wednesday, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said that the U.S. and South Korean intelligence communities are sharing information on Kim Jong Un’s health. Information is also shared with U.S. Forces Korea.
“Again, please firmly believe in the position of the South Korean government. Based on the information we have now, I’m telling you that there is no abnormality or special movement,” Jeong said after the session.
“As the Minister of National Defense, I have the greatest awareness and interest in this matter, and I am trying to figure out everything in detail,” he said.
Who would replace Kim?
Though no concrete evidence regarding Kim’s allegedly ailing health has surfaced, North Korea watchers have speculated at length as far as who might replace him in the event of his death.
Two names appear most frequently in these discussions: Kim Jong Un’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong, 32, and his uncle and father’s half-brother, Kim Pyong Il, 65.
Kim Yo Jong is said to have been getting a major push of late, as she has been given more responsibilities in the government.
“If [Kim] dies or becomes incapacitated, it is uncertain who would succeed him. His younger sister and confidante, Kim Yo Jong, is among the most likely,” said a U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) report updated Wednesday.
“She played a prominent role in summit diplomacy, but analysts wonder whether a woman could become the leader, particularly if not designated as successor by her brother,” the report said.
South Korea’s National Assembly Research Service noted that Kim Yo-Jong, who is the First Deputy Director of the Workers’ Party of Korea, was recently reappointed as an alternate member of the political bureau, and that it expected her to take a more active role in government to strengthen the foundation for the so-called ‘Mount Baekdu bloodline’.
Mount Baekdu is a sacred mountain in Korean culture, located on the Sino-Korean border. According to mythology Baekdu was the birthplace of Dangun, the first Korean. A myth is also taught in North Korea that Kim Jong Un’s father and predecessor Kim Jong Il was born there, meaning that all of his descendants would be of the Mount Baekdu bloodline.
The National Assembly Research Service also said it believed that Kim Yo-Jong has been an independent political entity since the beginning of this year, pointing out that she began issuing statements to the U.S. and South Korea in her name, signaling the possibility that she could take the role as the successor to the Baekdu bloodline.
“First Deputy Director Kim Yo-Jung served as an alternate member of the political bureau, but it is possible that her status may now be much stronger than before, given that she appeared as a alternate member of the political bureau shortly after issuing statements to the U.S. and South Korea,” Cho Han Bum of the Seoul-based Korea Institute of National Unification told RFA.
The case for Kim Pyong-Il
Experts are reluctant to say that Kim Yo Jong is the most likely to be her brother's successor however. They point out that authoritarian, patriarchal North Korea may not be ready to fall in line behind a woman.
The other name that has surfaced in speculation about Kim’s successor is Kim Pyong Il, who is the half brother of Kim Jong Il and the last surviving child of Kim Il Sung. He served as North Korea’s ambassador to Poland and several other European countries between 1988 and 2019.
But even with Kim Pyong Il’s high profile, experts said that his chances of becoming the next leader of North Korea are not high.
“I consider that Kim Pyong Il cannot be the next leader of North Korea. He has no network, in North Korea, of people who are able to support him in being the leader,” Nicolas Levi of the Polish Academy of Sciences told RFA Thursday.
Levi and other experts on North Korea’s elite met with Kim Pyong Il when he was the ambassador to Poland.
“He was removed from the DPRK already in the very late ’70s. We must take into account that he spent more than 60 percent of his life being abroad,” said Levi, adding, “All his friends were all killed or are deceased or committed suicide, and that’s why he cannot be the next leader.”
“Kim Pyong Il cannot have a good understanding of internal affairs,” said Levi, pointing out that the former ambassador only returned to North Korea one month out of every year while he was in Europe.
Ishimaru was doubtful about Kim Pyong Il’s prospects because of his lack of connection to the Mount Baekdu line.
“I think the possibility of Kim Pyong Il becoming the successor of Kim Jong Un is zero, not one percent,” he said.
“Under Kim Jong Un's rule, in June 2013, North Korea revised the '10 Principles on the Establishing of the Monolithic Ideology of the Party'. These principles are above the North Korean constitution, the party regulations in North Korea,” Ishimaru said.
“The revision included an addition of a sentence which emphasized the importance of keeping the spirit of the Party and Revolution forever with the bloodline of Mt. Baekdu, and stick to the purity of the bloodline. Kim Pyong Il [as Kim Jong Il’s half-brother] is what they call an 'offshoot', not the main trunk,” he added.
Whomever is chosen to succeed Kim Jong Un, must be a member of the Kim family with close ties to the Supreme Leader according to Ken Gause of the Virginia based-CNA Corporation.
“Because that’s where power exists right now. You can’t just be on the outside and say I’m going to take power. Who’s going to support you?” he told RFA.
Gause said that he believes that the Kim family is currently solidifying its power at least in a contingency plan.
“Start from the fact that there was no continuance of governance plan and now there seems to be one being put in place, which would try to enhance the power of the Kim family vs. other powerful institutions and individuals within the regime,” he said.
“You would assume that it would have to be another Kim family member, unless there is going to be a complete reprobation on how the system works. In order to have legitimacy most likely it has to be a Kim family member,” he added.
Gause said the three most likely candidates were Kim Pyong Il, Kim Yo Jong and Kim Jong Un’s older brother Kim Jong Chol.
The CRS report said that if a power struggle were to erupt in North Korea, there would be major implications for U.S. interests, “including questions about control of the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal, the potential for a humanitarian crisis, and the possibility of a confrontation with China that could alter the fundamental security structure of the region.”
Additional reporting by Hee Jung Yang, Yewon Ji, Seungwook Hong, and Jeong Eun Lee for RFA’s Korean Service. Translation by Leejin Jun.