Dead or alive? The mystery surrounding Kim Jong Un demonstrates the limits of U.S. intelligence on North Korea

Jenna McLaughlin
National Security and Investigations Reporter

As rumors swirl about the death or incapacitation of Kim Jong Un, the third in a line of reclusive dictators of North Korea, experts who have pored over the limited information available say it’s likely no one outside the country knows for sure what his current condition is.

“It’s a tough country to understand in normal times,” noted Ken Gause, a senior foreign leadership analyst for CNA, a nonprofit research outfit that frequently works with government organizations. “If they want to shut down information coming out of the regime, they will,” he told Yahoo News.

South Korean officials have gone as far as denying his death, but Kim has not surfaced publicly in two weeks, despite multiple recent statements being sent out under his name. President Trump on Monday night hinted he knew more about Kim’s health but would not elaborate.  

The initial sign of alarm came on April 15 when Kim, for the first time since he assumed power, failed to show up at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun for his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s birthday celebrations, one of the isolated nation’s most important holidays. Concerns grew following Kim’s absence and reporting that he had undergone heart surgery, according to the South Korean site Daily NK, known for its connections to North Korean defector networks. Reports from CNN about U.S. officials tracking news of Kim’s grave health condition and a deleted tweet from an NBC reporter about Kim being brain-dead escalated speculation quickly.

The range of possible scenarios inside North Korea is wide. Kim could be vacationing or recovering from a medical procedure, or isolating himself from coronavirus infection like much of the world. 

At the other end of the spectrum is “the ultimate nightmare squared,” said Harry Kazianis, the senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest, during a phone interview. That nightmare is a scenario in which the nuclear-armed state collapses and a flood of refugees, possibly infected with the coronavirus, surges into China and South Korea.

With such little information emerging from the North Korean enclave, most experts plan on waiting and seeing.

Kim Jong Un in 2019. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

“The bottom line ... is that we won’t know the status of Kim Jung-un until North Korea tells us,” wrote Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, the former American special envoy to the six-party talks with North Korea, in an email to Yahoo News.

Extracting information from North Korea, a place that is cut off from the rest of the world, has always been extremely difficult for intelligence gathering. “When I was in intelligence, we called North Korea the hardest of the hard targets,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA officer and a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation.

Given the lack of information, experts have often turned to satellite imagery to try to get a sense of the situation on the ground. According to imagery published by Korean analysis shop 38 North, Kim Jong Un’s personal train has been parked at Wonsan, an elite coastal beach area.

“There could be other explanations,” noted Gause. “Potentially he’s trying to avoid the virus, or maybe he’s reached a position within his consolidation of power that he no longer has to pay deference to his father and grandfather in order to maintain legitimacy.”

If the rumors are true, or even if Kim is temporarily out of commission, the pandemic could make it even harder to understand what’s going on and how to send aid. Even smuggling between North Korea and China is cut off, removing one of the methods the regime uses to keep afloat amid crippling sanctions, Klingner noted.

“North Korea and China have really closed the border,” he said.

Commuters wearing face masks in Pyongyang, North Korea, on March 30. (Kyodo via Reuters)

The potential for a large exodus of North Korean refugees “would be of real concern to China, given its 900-mile border with North Korea,” wrote DeTrani. “That’s where the international community has to help, assuming, of course, that [Kim Jong Un] or any successor permits the international community and NGOs to help,” he continued.

Kim’s death would also have repercussions on the United States, which has around 28,000 forces based in South Korea. It’s unclear how those forces might have to respond to chaos within North Korea or to defend South Korea. 

In recent years, U.S. and South Korean forces have already cut down on certain military exercises due to now stagnant diplomatic negotiations between Trump and Kim. With the pandemic, those military forces are on lockdown — though their alert status does not appear to have changed in response to rumors about Kim’s death. Additionally, the U.S. and South Korea have been engaged in intense negotiations over defense payments to reimburse the Pentagon, straining the relationship somewhat. U.S. forces in Korea are currently operating under a state of emergency, with restrictions on movement and proximity. While North Korea has artillery forces amassed at the border pointing toward Seoul, it’s unclear what a conflict would look like amid a pandemic.

“I’d be paying attention to what the Chinese are doing and what the U.S. and South Korea are doing,” said Gause. “If they’re not raising their alert status or preparing to go into North Korea, at most, there might be a transition of power but no crisis.”

If Kim is dead or dies, experts believe the most likely successor would be his sister, Kim Yo Jong, whose position in the elite society and political rankings has been elevated over recent years. Her status as a Kim might be more important than her gender.

Kim Jong Un and sister Kim Yo Jong in Paju, South Korea, in 2018. (Inter-Korean Summit Press Corps/Pool/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“I think that someone connected to the Peaktu bloodline is essential for legitimacy,” wrote David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a U.S. Army veteran previously stationed in Korea who runs an email Listserv on Korean issues. “It will be difficult for a non-blood relative to take power as the entire propaganda narrative will have to be adjusted.”

If there’s no clear successor and Kim’s fate is as grim as rumors paint it to be, then things could escalate quickly.

“A lot of times, we plan ... then all those plans go out the window as soon as something starts to happen,” said Gause. The U.S. would “potentially not only be dealing with an insurgency inside North Korea but also potentially a civil war as well as U.S. Forces Korea butting up against Chinese forces, none of whom have communicated beforehand.”

One possible upside to the current possible crisis is that if North Korea is simply suffering from the impact of the pandemic, it could offer the intelligence community a rare opportunity, said Joe Nixon, an intelligence and national security researcher.

“According to Radio Free Asia, the regime is attempting to educate North Koreans about the dangers of the virus,” he wrote, noting that appears to contradict the government’s position in early March, when it claimed there were no COVID-19 cases in the country.

“This presents opportunities for intelligence gathering,” he wrote, “or to hold medical aid over their head in exchange for calling off weapons testing or something similar.”

People leave after laying flowers before the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang on April 15. (Kim Won/AFP via Getty Images)

 

_____

Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please refer to the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

Read more: