Opinion | Nobody Has Seen Kim Jong-un for 19 Days. What Does It Mean?


SEOUL, South Korea — Nineteen days have elapsed since North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, was seen on his country’s state media, on April 12, a day after he presided over a meeting of the Politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party.

Intense speculation about Mr. Kim’s disappearance has followed. Some experts have tried to decipher his location by examining satellite images of traffic around key buildings in Pyongyang, the capital; others have speculated openly about potential candidates for succession.

The questions repeatedly being asked are: Why did he not join the April 15 birthday ceremony at the mausoleum for Kim Il-sung, his grandfather and the founding father of the country? Has he undergone a cardiovascular procedure at Hyangsan Hospital, a clinic dedicated to treating the Kim family, as a Seoul-based website has claimed?

Kim Yeon-chul, South Korea’s unification minister, who refuted the reports of Mr. Kim being ill, suggested that his absence from the April 15 ceremony could be related to the government scaling back on such commemorations as it intensifies the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

There might be more to it: Mr. Kim seems to be ensuring that he is moving out of his famous grandfather’s shadow.

The Supreme People’s Assembly, the North Korean Parliament, revised the Constitution in April and August of last year, and Mr. Kim was described as the one who “represents the state,” a phrase competing with Kim Il-sung’s title (“the head of the state”) while he was president. The revisions also granted Mr. Kim the right to appoint and recall diplomatic representatives, a power that not even his grandfather possessed.

The North Korean state media’s propaganda has been magnifying Mr. Kim’s image while de-emphasizing the accomplishments of his grandfather after the collapse of the summit between Mr. Kim and President Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February of last year. The glorification of Mr. Kim above his forefathers was obvious during the party’s founding anniversary in October.

This year, for the first time since Mr. Kim came to power in 2012, Pyongyang did not hold a large-scale national meeting attended by officials, foreign visitors and citizens marking Kim Il-sung’s birthday.

Another key feature of Kim Il-sung’s birth anniversary celebrations has been the publication of an editorial in Rodong Sinmun, the party paper, dedicated to glorifying his achievements. This April, the birthday editorial was published three days late — a remarkable decision that likely was made at the higher levels of the Workers’ Party. Neither questions about Mr. Kim’s health nor concerns about quarantine explain the belated publication of the newspaper’s birthday editorial.

Pyongyang has adhered to a longstanding tradition of maintaining silence on speculation about its top leader and his family, including their health. Questions about whether Mr. Kim has been unwell and has had surgery will not be answered. Information about his health is seen as most sensitive as it can have repercussions for regime stability.

Pyongyang seems to consider addressing speculation about its leadership through its state media as inappropriate and unnecessary. In 2014, Mr. Kim remained absent from public view for 41 days. His father, Kim Jong-il, remained absent from the public eye for 51 days in 2008. In both cases, North Korea did not respond officially or through its state media to rumors about their health.

Mr. Kim will undoubtedly return to the public view when he can, most likely at a time of his choice, and won’t be seen to be responding to international rumors.

North Korea’s supreme leader may be deliberately prolonging his absence to mislead and confuse audiences. Since late last year, the country has drastically reduced foreign policy messaging and stopped publishing the party daily commentaries on foreign affairs as well. These moves could be aimed at making its foreign policy calculus harder to decipher.

Yet Mr. Kim’s 19-day absence from the public view is not highly unusual considering the increased intervals between his public appearances of late. Between 2012 and 2020, most of his appearances in public have been after gaps of less than 15 days. But this year alone, Mr. Kim disappeared for 21 days between Jan. 26 and Feb. 16, and for 19 days between March 22 and April 10.

We should attempt to track Mr. Kim’s movements with more caution and reason — and perhaps less speculation — using context and past examples of longer gaps between his appearances to guide us.

Rachel Minyoung Lee worked as an open source intelligence analyst on North Korea for the United States.

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