The health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is once again under international scrutiny after a report he may be in a poor condition following surgery. Let’s try to break down what’s going on.
What has North Korea said?
On April 12 North Korean state media reported that Kim had visited an airbase and observed drills by fighter planes. That’s normal. But on Tuesday April 14, state media did not mention him as attending North Korea’s latest weapons test, which he normally supervises.
Most significantly, on April 15, North Korea’s most important public holiday took place without any mention of Kim’s involvement. The Day of the Sun commemorates the birthday of the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung — Kim Jong Un’s grandfather. It is very unusual for Kim to have missed the celebrations — he never has before.
What was reported about Kim’s health?
On Monday, a Seoul-based news website, the Daily NK, reported that Kim had undergone a “cardiovascular surgical procedure” and had largely recovered. Kim, Daily NK said, had been struggling with cardiovascular problems since late August due to “excessive smoking, obesity, and overwork.” The story was widely covered by international media, although the Daily NK later added a correction to say that the article was based on a single source in North Korea, not multiple sources as it had originally reported.
CNN also reported Monday that the US was monitoring intelligence suggesting Kim was in “grave danger.” CNN’s source was described as a US official with “direct knowledge” of the situation.
After CNN’s story broke late Monday ET, a number of fake accounts — including one emulating the CNN Breaking News account, and another parodying US Attorney General William Barr — posted tweets claiming Kim was dead.
MSNBC anchor Katy Tur wrote on Twitter that Kim was brain dead, according to two US officials, but quickly deleted the tweet.
What has the response been?
South Korean news agency Yonhap quoted South Korean officials as saying they had seen nothing to suggest that Kim was unwell.
“No unusual signs have been identified inside North Korea,” Presidential spokesman Kang Min-seok said. “There is nothing we can confirm with regard to Chairman Kim’s alleged health problem.”
“There is nothing unusual going on in North Korea. It’s not true,” another government official told Yonhap on condition of anonymity.
The Reuters news agency also cited two South Korean government sources as saying the reports about Kim’s health were not true.
BuzzFeed News reached out to the South Korean government and the US State Department but did not hear back.
Andray Abrahamian, an expert on North Korea from George Mason University Korea, explained how the story about Kim’s health developed.
“The Daily NK report that started this is underground single source reporting from within the most opaque country in the world,” he told BuzzFeed News. “That isn’t useless but also faces limitations. The Reuters report that picked up what Daily NK had said perhaps didn’t sufficiently caveat that. Then CNN went with a dramatic headline and anonymous sourcing from the United States that was also very vague but made it seem as if there was more credible information than there probably is.
“Then the world’s media is compelled to write something lest they be missing out on a major story.”
So, what is going on?
No one really knows.
It is next to impossible to independently confirm information from within North Korea, where no independent media operates at all, and international intelligence agencies have a track record of being wrong. South Korea and the US famously learned of the death of Kim Jong Il — Kim Jong Un’s father — at the same time as the rest of the world.
Things inside North Korea are even more secretive than ever at the moment due to the coronavirus outbreak, which has basically halted internal travel within North Korea — to the extent that it previously existed — as well as at least some border traffic. This would have the effect of making sourcing even more challenging for both the intelligence community and media organizations. Even specialist sites like the Daily NK get things wrong, they are after all covering the most secretive state in the world.
Kim, 36, is thought to have health problems linked to obesity and heavy smoking. He became the leader of North Korea in 2011 after his father Kim Jong Il, who had ruled the country since 1994, died of a heart attack.
In September 2014 he disappeared for around a month and returned with a limp. South Korean intelligence officials said he had undergone surgery to remove a cyst from his ankle.
Watch this space.