A whirlwind of speculation has surrounded North Korea within the past month as the country’s leader Kim Jong-Un has not been seen in public since September 3.
Separating truth from fiction in North Korea can be incredibly difficult. The country tries to maintain total secrecy as to its inner political workings, and its leadership is an almost-total black box.
The majority of information related to the Hermit Kingdom comes from South Korean newspapers, think tanks, and the occasional North Korean defector, and even those reports can be of uncertain value.
But the general trend of information from the past month signals that something might be going on inside North Korea, even if no one’s sure of what. Some are speculating that supreme leader Kim Jong-Un may have been the victim of an internal coup. Gordon G. Chang of The Daily Beast has outlined a number of pieces of evidence that North Korea might be undergoing major shifts in its political order.
On the other hand, there’s a long history of predicting changes in North Korea that don’t actually end up happening. And in January, political scientist Jay Ulfelder forecasted that North Korea belonged in the same category of coup risk for the coming year as the United States or Canada. The Hermit Kingdom’s decades of rock-solid autocracy, and lack of recent coup attempts or civil wars informs against the potential for a surprise shakeup in leadership, according to Ulfelder’s model.
Of course, none of this means that there isn’t something significant now underway in Pyongyang. Here are the key arguments that the media is citing to support this conclusion.
1. North Korea’s Capital Is In Lockdown
Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, has been reportedly locked down since September 27. This lockdown is a general travel ban preventing anyone from entering or leaving the capital, although it also applies to citizens of the city.
In a coup scenario, the lockdown could either be an attempt to prevent possible defectors or coup plotters from fleeing the city after an unsuccessful attempt, or it could be a move by the putschists to impose order after successfully seizing control.
It is also possible that the there’s no coup at all, and that the lockdown signals that something else is afoot, like a further purge of officials that Kim finds disloyal.
2. Kim Jong-Un Has Not Been Seen For Over A Month
Kim Jong-Un, the supreme leader of North Korea, has not been seen in public since the start of September. North Korean state media has chalked his absence up to health concerns. A video in July and another video in September showed Kim walking with a limp. It is also thought that the leader might be suffering from gout, due to his preference for strong alcohol and fatty food.
The rather heavyset Kim has also been spending an awful lot of time on his feet lately; one South Korean media report says that the Supreme Leader has been undergoing surgery for resulting ankle fractures.
There’s at least one sign that the health rumours might be causing confusion or unrest inside of North Korea, or that the country’s leadership realises they might have a situation on their hands — on Sunday, senior North Korean officials reversed course and said that there was no problem with Kim’s health.
3. Kim Missed One Of The Country’s Biggest Annual Events
Kim, ostensibly because of health issues, failed to attend last month’s meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly. This was the first such assembly that he has skipped since taking power in 2011.
But that’s not all. The assembly’s official minutes curiously failed to mention Kim Jong-Un until the very end of the document. This could be interpreted as proof of the Supreme Leader’s tenuous grip on power.
Then again, both Kim’s father and grandfather did not always attend the assemblies, and his absence alone does not necessarily hint at political turmoil.
4. North Korean Officials Visited South Korea Unannounced
A high-ranking delegation of North Korean officials that included what are considered to be the Hermit Kingdom’s second and third in charge paid a surprise visit to South Korea on Saturday. The visit was the first such high-level talk between officials from the two countries in years. It might even have been the “most senior” northern delegation ever to visit South Korea.
Yet Andrei Lankov, a North Korean scholar who teaches in Seoul, told The Washington Post that this could be part of an ongoing North Korean “charm offensive” that is meant to distance the North from excessive Chinese influence. It doesn’t automatically indicate any changes in Pyongyong, at least not on its own.
5. There Are Rumours Of Increasing Dissent
The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported in July that officials and soldiers throughout North Korea are becoming increasingly restive under Kim Jong-Un. Officials are apparently openly criticising Kim or disagreeing with his policies, something that would have been unthinkable under Kim’s father or grandfather.
6. Kim Has Carried Out Frequent Purges
Since taking control of the country, Kim is estimated to have purged half of the top 218 military and regime officials within North Korea. He has also changed his army chief three times in 15 months. All of this points to a possible lack of legitimacy and support for Kim’s rule — or possibly the relatively new leader’s deep mistrust of his own top officers.
Either way, Kim changed the military order as many times during his first two years in power as his father Kim Jong-Il had done during his 17 years in control.
Kim even purged a close member of his own family. In December 2013, Kim had his uncle Jang Song Thaek executed. Jang was Kim’s second in command and regent, the official responsible for overseeing Kim’s transition to power.
Jang’s purge could signal Kim’s desire to exercise total rule and put an end to a period of behind-the-scenes competition between powerful personalities in the North.
7. A Prominent Defector Says Kim Is A Figurehead
Jang Jin-sung, a former key member of the late Kim Jong-Il’s propaganda machine and a prominent North Korean defector, has asserted that North Korea has been in the midst of a political upheaval for a while now. According to Jang, the Organisation and Guidance Department, a group of elite officials created by Kim Jong-Il, has seized power and is using Kim Jong-Un as a figurehead.
But the claim has no outside confirmation.
Given that North Korea is essentially a black box, it is easy to jump to conclusions on the health and stability of the regime. Taken in total, these points seem to hint that something big is underway in the Hermit Kingdom. They could just as easily add up to nothing.
An unnamed US official, speaking to Reuters, said that there was no indication that anything unusual was underway in North Korea. But as with most other things North Korea-related, there’s little way of knowing for sure.
Armin Rosen contributed to this report.
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