The apparent reappearance of a mysteriously absent Kim Jung Un
Despite the apparent reappearance of a mysteriously absent Kim Jung Un from public view for over three weeks to open a fertilizer factory, we sought a perspective from Dr Jim Hoare, who has been an Associate Fellow in the Asia-Pacific Programme of Chatham House since 2014. A former Diplomat he opened the original British Embassy in Pyongyang and was later a Senior Teaching Fellow in Korean Studies at SOAS, University of London. He writes and broadcasts regularly on China, Japan and Korea.
In a discussion with Roddy Gow, Chairman of the Asia Scotland Institute, he said:
“The real problem, as so often with North Korea, is that we lack solid information. Rumours get going and develop a life of their own. All we can say for certainty is that Kim Jong Un has not appeared in public since 11-12 April. Such disappearances are not unprecedented but in the absence of real information, a lot of hot air fills the gaps. He may be ill, he may be on holiday – not likely perhaps around his grandfather’s birthday on 12 April but not impossible; he has shown signs of wanting to break away from the past – or he may be taking precautions against the possible threat of COVID-19. If he is in Wonsan, the last would seem to me the most likely explanation – very much self isolating. But we do not know. That life seems to be going on as normal seems to me a sign that he is not in any serious condition, but again, there is no way of knowing. Frustrating, but that is the DPRK for you!”
Responses to Journalist Enquires About Kim Jong Un and Succession
Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un, has been referred to as North Korea’s “propagandist-in-chief.” Is that a fair assessment?
ANSWER. She was assistant director of the Korean Workers Party Propaganda and Agitation Department from 2014 and became director the following year. She has in recent weeks began to make statements, presumably with her brother’s authority, which means she is important.
Just how much power does she currently have? Is it fair to call her the most powerful woman in North Korea? Can she be considered the most powerful person in North Korea after Kim Jong Un?
ANSWER. An impossible question to answer. She certainly has had a higher profile in recent weeks, and she appears to be trusted by her brother. But we do not really know enough about the inner dynamics of the leadership to make such pronouncements with any real certainty. That does not stop some people doing so, of course, but that does not make them correct.
Does she have good visibility? Are North Koreans quite familiar with her? It seems that after the Singapore summit of 2018, she became known to many in the west as well.
ANSWER. She appears in public and has been identified as Kim Jong Un’s sister – but not I think in the North Korean media. Her name and title are known, and the clear close association with Kim Jong Un but the North Korean media does not spend effort defining relations. When she first began to appear in her brother’s company, she was often identified as his wife in the West – until his wife was identified. She was seen quite regularly with her brother and seemed to play an organizational role for him – producing documents, pens etc. She became better known well before the Singapore summit. She went after all to the Winter Olympics in January 2018 and had dinner with ROK President Moon. She was also snubbed by US Vice President Pence at the Games and he refused to attend the dinner given by moon – thereby managing to offend both the North and South Koreans.
How close is she to Kim Jong Un? Is it fair to say she is his “confidante” or his “alter ego”? I have heard some journalists refer to her as the “Ivanka Trump of North Korea”? Is that a fair description? There is speculation that she was the one behind Kim’s meticulously constructed public image. Is there any ground to that?
ANSWER. She is his younger sister. Koreans in the South say that you can only trust your siblings and your primary school friends and I rather think it is the same in the North. We have no real knowledge of exactly her relationship is with her brother. But their father, Kim Jong Il, was always very close to his sister, Kim Kyong Hui, who was said to look after the family finances and also held other party and government positions. Kim Yo Jong may be in the same tradition. She and her brother appear to have spent a lot of time away from their parents as children, including being at school together in Switzerland. Public images take a lot of constructing and professional knowledge. She could not have done it alone. I think she is probably far more capable than Ivanka Trump. She is certainly far less pushy! Not difficult, I suppose.
Does she seem like the most likely or logical heir? I understand there are other male heirs (brothers and potentially children), but they are younger/ inexperienced. How likely is she to get bypassed for leadership by the generals or military junta?
ANSWER. North and South Korea are male dominated and still highly chauvinistic – look what happened to Park Geun-hye in the South, despite being the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee. In the North, women are nominally more equal but in practice this is not the case. So she would face a problem as a woman. She would, I suspect, find the generals hard to convert to her side. She and Kim Jong Un have an older brother, Kim Jong Chul. While at one time he was thought to be being prepared as the successor, his father apparently thought that he was “too girlish” and from 2008 onwards, Kim Jong Un – unidentified – began to appear in his father’s entourage. We do not know where Kim Jong Chul is or what he does. According to Thae Yong Ho, who defected in 2016, he had attended a concert by Eric Clapton in London in 2015 (Thae was no. 2 in the DPRK embassy here then) but he has not been seen since. He was not listed on his father’s funeral committee in 2011 and has not been mentioned in the North Korean embassy since the death. If he is still alive, he might be seen as a more logical successor than his sister. Kim Jong Un is believed to have a son but he is an infant. Their older half-brother Kim Jong Nam was assassinated in Malaysia in 2017 – he was seen by many foreigners as the most likely successor to Kim Jong Il but said he was not interested. In reality, he was probably ruled out because it is not clear if Kim Jong Il and his mother ever married. He has a son, Kim Han Sol, who has lived abroad for most of his life but who has not been seen for some time. Kim Il Sung was married twice and had two sons by his second wife. They were thus half-brothers to Kim Jong Il and his sister. Their mother tried to push them forward as possible successors to Kim Il Sung in the 1970s, but once Kim Jong Il was publicly acknowledged in that role after 1980, they both wisely took up diplomatic posts abroad and stayed abroad. The younger one died in 2000. The elder one, Kim Pyong Il, returned to North Korea last year and has not been seen since. It is believed that the whole of this second family have been ostracised and have had no contact with the first family. If he is alive, he might, I suppose, be a useful figurehead but I think it is unlikely.
As a woman, does she stand any chance of ever actually coming to power despite the bloodline considering the country’s patriarchal structure?
ANSWER. I think it would be very hard but do not know. Thae Yong Ho has said that she is a child that she is very young for a leader
Is she very much an unknown? It seems like we know very little about her personal life, beyond that she is in her 30s. Seems like she didn’t have much presence until 2010?
ANSWER. We do not know much about any of them. Kim Jong Il kept his private life very private. When I opened the British Embassy in Pyongyang in 201, my Korean staff asked if the leader had any children – officially they did not know that he was married. According to the Japanese sushi chef to Kim Jong Il, she, like her brothers, went to school in Switzerland. It is rumoured that she is married to a son of Chae Ryong Hae, a senior party man and now the formal ceremonial head of state. She has served in the Supreme People’s Assembly (parliament) and in the party. She is said to have a “sweet and good-natured disposition” and to have taken over the family finances. Who knows?
Does the importance of family and friends override the ideological divide between the Koreas? Would one see the same networks on both sides of the border?
ANSWER – You see very similar networks in both Koreas. Perhaps less so in politics in the South but certainly in business. In politics, there are regular cases of sons – I know of only one daughter – following their fathers into politics, plus occasionally wives taking over when a husband dies. Although Park Geunh-hye was Park Chung-hee’s eldest child, she was not groomed by her father to take over. Indeed, after his death in 1979, she kept out of politics for 20 odd years.
Male chauvinism – would this necessarily be fatal to her succession aims? For example, would the military countenance a female leader? Would she be regarded, say, as insufficiently ruthless?
ANSWER – Its a matter of judgement. Chauvinism probably played a major role in Park Geun-hye’s fall in the South. I do not see the generals accepting a woman and I doubt she has a strong power base. We do not know how ruthless she is but I suspect that she is no shrinking violet. What would work in her favour is her descent from Kim Il Sung, her grandfather – she is of the blood line. A figurehead leader, perhaps, at best.
Rivals – I imagine the leader’s incapacity or death would be a moment of maximum danger for the dynasty. Would she need to move swiftly to cement her position? Who is regarded as a possible rival successor in the party hierarchy?
ANSWER – Possibly for the dynasty but the regime would probably survive. They know about the dangers of disunity, whether in China in 1989, or Libya and Iraq. They also know that there are plenty in the South who might try to take advantage of disunity – and the prospects for the elite if there was a Southern takeover are pretty grim. Less peace and reconciliation and more “Let’s get the bastards”, I fear. Who would come to the top of the heap in a power struggle is hard to tell – we do not really know enough about the dynamics.
Husband appears to have been a member of the unit tasked with securing hard currency, part of the Third Floor. Is she therefore the brains behind her brother- the consigliere – or do we simply not know enough about her to say that?
ANSWER – No idea, I fear.
Could she be regarded as a moderniser in N Korea terms?
ANSWER – By whom? The North’s system is perfect – no need to change is the official line, even if they do change things. We really do not know enough about her. She seems to have been at school in Switzerland, as were her brothers – but they were hardly exposed to Swiss society. They lived in the Geneva consulate general and did not mix out of hours.
You say that she was initially thought to be her brother’s wife. One imagines the Western intelligence agencies have their ways, but how successful is the regime hiding things from the outside world when it wants to?
ANSWER – I would not have any illusions that “intelligence services” have much knowledge. The Russians and the Chinese may know more but I doubt that they ever really share things that are sensitive. The South Koreans, Japanese and the Americans are all absent. We all relied on old-fashioned ways as we did over the Soviet Union and China until the 1980s – you studied the entrails. Or at least the photos, appearance lists etc. And the North Koreans are even more secretive.
Do you see any signs or indications that Kim Jong Un’s indeed severely ill or even dead? Would North Korean newspapers be publishing statements on Kim’s behalf, or example his recent commendation of construction workers)? How North Korean media would behave if something was off with their leader? Would they somehow try to prepare the population for his possible demise?
Answer: The original source of the story was Daily NK News, a Seoul-based defector/refugee organization that claims to have contacts within the country. The original story was that he had heart surgery and was recovering. Their latest English-language piece sticks firmly to that story, denying that he remains seriously ill or that he is dead the rest seems to be rumour and wild speculation. I find it hard to believe that if there was a serious problem, things would just carry on as normal, with TV programmes etc going out as usual. That said, messages are easy to send and cannot be considered as personal, whatever signature they carry.
Kim Jong Un was missing several years ago too, in 2014, apparently due to a leg injury. Is it typical for the North Korean leaders to disappear from the public eye for a while? What is so different this time that it causes so much speculation?
Answer: Such disappearances are not unusual and are rarely explained. When Kim Jong Il was apparently ill in 2008, no official explanation was given. Quite why there has been such a media frenzy this time is not clear. Perhaps people assume that things are different now from the past. Kim Jong Un has met the US President etc. No journalist wants to be left behind on the story, if story there is.
If Kim Jong Un’s truly gravely ill, how would we know it? How would North Korea announce such things? Would it announce them at all?
Answer: If he is not dead or totally incapacitated, I would not expect that there would be any formal announcement. If he was dead, it would probably be announced after a delay while things are sorted out behind the scenes. Then, gradually, the signs would begin – stopping of entertainment, solemn music etc. None of that yet, just rumours.