Why can’t the US tell for sure if North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is ill?

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A few days ago, headlines around the world suggested that North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, was in critical condition following surgery. Almost immediately, questions arose about succession. After years of fiery bluster and threats of nuclear war out of the North Korean government, many wondered if relations between our two states might warm with someone new at the helm.

But then, just as quickly as the story broke, it slunk back into the shadows of unconfirmed reports. Now questions remain about what really happened to Kim, what the status of his health really is, and whether or not there’s a clear line of succession in the event North Korea’s despot does pass away.

Why is it so hard to know what’s going on with Kim Jong Un?

(Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

For many Americans, it can be difficult to really appreciate what life is like inside North Korea’s borders. In fact, the North Korean government takes great pains to ensure that visitors and the media see and depict only positive views of the nation and its government. In the modern world, North Korea represents a vestige of a simpler time, with limited connection to the world at large and an intensely regulated culture that places Kim, his father, and grandfather in a near-deity role.

According to some reports from foreigners given limited access to North Korea, each home has a small radio that can not be turned off (but that does have a volume knob). These radios receive a steady stream of national propaganda, touting the successes of their great leader and framing many of the nation’s challenges as the direct result of American imperialism. There remains some debate about if these radio’s are actually in every home, but the truth is, it wouldn’t much matter even if it weren’t true. The North Korean government strictly censors all media content within the state, regardless of its method of distribution.

North Korean civilian woman. (Roman Harak, WikiMedia Commons)

And therein lies a big part of why the outside world is so “in the dark” about things that go on within North Korea’s borders: with nearly no access to the internet outside of government officials, no free press, and strict policies regulating the activity of foreign visitors (particularly those from the West), there’s simply no open source method of intelligence gathering.

Instead, America’s defense and intelligence apparatus has to rely on whatever signal communications it can intercept and what is commonly referred to as HUMINT (or covert intelligence gathered from actual people within the closed-off nation).

In America, the free press would report on a president suddenly turning ill, but in North Korea, where the government goes to great lengths to suggest that Kim Jong Un is a larger-than-life success at everything he does, reporting on a medical emergency would run counter to decades worth of intentional messaging.

Who would take over if Kim Jong Un dies?

That’s the million-dollar question, and to be clear, it can be difficult to say. The current front runner among many who study North Korea, however, is Kim’s sister–Kim Yo Jong. After living, more or less, in the shadow of her now-ruling brother for decades, Kim Yo Jong garnered headlines the world over in 2018’s Olympics, when she traveled to South Korea alongside North Korean participants in the games, as an official representative of the state.

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo receives photos from his meeting with Chairman Kim Jong Un from Chairman Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, in Pyongyang, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on October 7, 2018. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]
Kim’s older brother, Kim Jong Nam, was once considered the favorite for the proverbial throne over Kim Jong Un himself. The eldest son of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Nam was slated to take over upon his father’s death until 2001, when he and his family were detained at Narita International Airport in Tokyo for using false identities while trying to visit Tokyo Disneyland.

That embarrassing gaff, as well as Kim Jong Nam’s apparent interest in reforming North Korea into a more modern state, led his father to instead choose Kim Jong Nam’s younger half-brother to rule. Kim Jong Un was named heir apparent in September 2010, and took over control of the nation the following year.

Kim Jong Nam and his family were exiled from North Korea, and he was later assassinated in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia. The killers, which were two young women who claimed they thought they were filming a reality show, used a difficult to procure nerve agent called VX to kill the man, and the ensuing investigation implicated North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong Un. So, while Kim Jong Nam has a son that could potentially have a claim to North Korean rule, it’s extremely unlikely that he’d ever be allowed to pursue it.

Kim Jong Nam was assassinated in 2017.

Over the years, Kim Jong Un has ordered the execution of a number of long standing government officials and trusted advisors that dated back into his father’s rule. Many contend that, like Kim Jong Nam, many North Koreans respected these individuals, which often led to execution or assassination in order for Kim to secure his position atop the North Korean government. It is possible that a senior military official or governmental leader could assume control over the nation if Kim were to die, but that’s unlikely, as the Kim dynasty plays an integral role in North Korea’s governmental culture.

In all likelihood then, Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, seems like the most likely heir, though it does not appear that any formal announcement indicating as much has been made within North Korea.

Would things be better with Kim out of the way?

Unfortunately, that’s hard to say. Kim Jong Un has garnered a great deal of global attention thanks to his fiercely anti-American agenda, in fact, one could contend that Kim has consolidated his power and influence within North Korea, in part, through painting America as the source of all his people’s woes — but the truth is, Kim may be a more reasonable leader than whoever fills that role next.

Kim has indeed continued the pursuit of nuclear weapons and the delivery systems by which North Korea can leverage them, but for all the bluster, Kim has managed to walk the line between acting aggressive and being aggressive. Kim acts aggressively toward the United States frequently, but it’s important to note that Kim clearly doesn’t desire open war with the United States, no matter how much he might threaten.

Kim Jong Un inspecting an alleged nuclear weapon. (Image courtesy of North Korea’s KCNA)

A Kim disciple may not have the same knack for self-preservation, and a North Korean government that took to being overtly aggressive toward America and its allies would likely lead to kinetic intervention, and potentially even open war.

However, there remains the chance that Kim’s successor, whomever he or she may be, might favor some degree of reform like Kim Jong Nam did. In fact, some sources within North Korea indicate that many citizens have lost some degree of faith in the divine power of the Kim dynasty, and many may even be willing to support a more open initiative.

What is the U.S. doing to mitigate the threat from North Korea?

The United States and North Korea have been diplomatic (and even military) opponents for decades, but in recent years, the threat posed by North Korea has become significantly more serious.

In October of 2006, North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon. In 2015, they announced that they had developed the ability to “miniaturize” nuclear weapons sufficiently to house them within a missile or bomb. A year later, they tested their first “hydrogen bomb” or thermonuclear weapon. This style of nuclear weapon is significantly more powerful than the atom-bomb-esque weapons they had previously developed.

Kim Jong Un (bottom right) inspecting a long range ballistic missile. (KCNA)

In the years since, North Korea has conducted repeated long range ballistic missile tests that indicated that the nation would soon develop the capability to strike targets on the mainland United States. Although North Korea’s tests suggested that their re-entry vehicle remains lacking (suggesting they likely wouldn’t be able to actually strike targets at great distances), Kim’s efforts paid off when North Korea and the United States entered into talks aimed at doing away with their nuclear program.

However, to date, little progress has been made toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and North Korea maintains a massive number of hardened artillery installations within range of Seoul, South Korea’s capital — in other words, North Korean threats, both nuclear and conventional, still carry a reasonable degree of validity. As a result, the United States and much of the international community maintains tight economic sanctions over North Korea, which seem to be paying off.

North Korean troops have begun defecting at higher rates than ever, with some even being shot during their escapes. The condition of these deserters, many of whom belong to elite North Korean border units that often receive the best rations and supplies, paints a dire picture of North Korean life. Nothing but hardened corn kernels and large parasitic worms were found in the stomach of one such deserter during a life-saving surgery he underwent in South Korea after being shot multiple times by North Korean troops as he escaped.

Although sanctions seem to be working, North Korea remains aggressive and defiant. And, at least for now, it’s hard to say if Kim Jong Un’s end would make any difference, or even if that end is near.

Alex Hollings

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran.