By Nicholas Hamisevicz
After not being seen in public for over a month, surely Kim Jong-un would be at the 69th anniversary celebrations for the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea today. But, there was no sighting. The conspicuous absence of Kim Jong-un will continue to fuel speculation about his health, about the current state of leadership in North Korea, and about the impact this might have on the upcoming inter-Korean meetings and relations with the rest of North Korea’s neighbors. While Kim Jong-un may be ill for now, each day he is not seen increases the possibility that he is being sidelined.
The latest suggestion for no Kim Jong-un sighting is that he injured his tendon and leg when he tried to participate in a military exercise. His lifestyle and weight gain are factors within all the theories about his health.
The absence of Kim Jong-un and recent exchanges of fire between the two Koreas impact decisions regarding upcoming inter-Korean meeting and whether future talks will occur. In an attempt to show that Kim Jong-un is in charge and that he believes in improving inter-Korean relations, it was reported that during the mandatory lectures citizens attend, people were told “Marshal Kim Jong Eun personally organized” the high-level North Korean delegation to attend the Incheon closing ceremonies. However, if he is not fully in charge or in good health, North Korea could easily find a way not move to forward with inter-Korean talks that seemed promising after last Saturday. Indeed, the recent military fire exchange puts the late October/early November inter-Korean talks in jeopardy.
Who is in Charge? Kim Jong-un’s Sister? Hwang Pyong-so?
Each day without an appearance by Kim Jong-un will leave a larger doubt about the state of the North Korean leadership. North Korea has no clear succession process and the way the North Korean government actually makes decisions is convoluted.
The Kim family and its personal connections, the National Defense Commission, the Party structure, and the Cabinet are various places in which decisions and policies are created and implemented in North Korea. A conjecture that Kim Jong-un’s sister is actually running the country now has arisen. However, while she appears to have had an increased role and connections within the leadership structure around her brother, it is more likely that her role is to serve as a gatekeeper and go-between person during Kim Jong-un’s recovery.
Another name in the mix is Hwang Pyong-so who has widely been identified as North Korea’s number two leader because of his position as Vice Chairman on the National Defense Commission and director of the General Political Bureau of the North Korean military. His recent trip to Incheon, South Korea is seen by many as evidence that Kim Jong-un is still making decisions. On the other hand, some believe that Kim Jong-un is being pushed to the side. Without the presence of Kim Jong-un, the uncertainty of the processes and decisions inside North Korea will increase even more.
Reports and inclinations tend to side with the idea that Kim Jong-un is sick or hurt. North Korea’s propaganda machine must portray Kim Jong-un in the best possible way. Therefore, it is imperative that he fully recovers before being seen by the public. Kim Jong-un limping or using crutches, especially when there are military exchanges with South Korea, would not give off the appearance of a strong leader that could protect the country from its enemies. It is surprising in some ways that the propaganda team has not found a way to have a picture or video of Kim Jong-un sitting down. Granted, that would still leave doubts about his ability to walk, but it would at least alleviate the conjecture that he was seriously sick or being pushed aside.
The Kim Jong-un watch continues for analysts and the media. Even though many believe Kim Jong-un is still in charge, the longer he is away, the more the possibility grows that Kim Jong-un’s power has been diminished. Because of the lack of understanding of the actual succession and policy process in North Korea, Kim Jong-un’s health and whereabouts will be key components for much of the other analysis on North Korea’s actions,not to mention, a focus by neighboring countries. North Korea’s recent outreaches and provocations, especially the outcome of the next round of inter-Korean talks planned for late October or early November, will be parsed even more closely to determine if Kim Jong-un is still in charge or if he is being sidelined.
Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Adaptor-Plug’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.