By Max S. Kim*
The weeks-long media frenzy about Kim Jong Un’s “grave condition after surgery” ended with North Korea’s latest state-media report on his resumed public activity on May 1.
Brewing speculation about his death or incapacitation based on various intelligence sources spread faster than the Wuhan coronavirus and claimed many innocent victims. His reappearance proved CNN to be a fake news outlet and raised doubts about the credibility of reports poured out by the world’s most revered news outlets (NYT, WP, BBC, AP, Reuters, etc.).
The South Korean government was an exception and insisted that Kim was well and alive. But how could they be so sure about Kim’s health condition? Some jokingly say it is because Moon Jae-in is chief of the Seoul branch of the North Korean Communist Party.
Incapacitation or a False Flag?
Was the “missing rocket man” in serious condition or was the story a false flag? It is a bit too early to tell, despite his public reappearance, and at this point, to keep watching how things are going to unfold will be a prudent step to take.
When President Trump said that he received a note from Kim, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry Department issued a denial in no time. Then, the regime kept complete silence about Kim’s long absence, deliberately feeding the media frenzy for weeks.
North Korea has widely used body doubles of its leaders, and the Supreme Guard Command has a special unit for grooming and managing the body doubles. Kim’s public appearance alone does not tell much about his real physical condition yet. We should not underestimate the regime’s special capabilities for unlawful acts of sorts, such as Photoshopping, digital hacking, and human trafficking, for which the regime is surely a gold medal contender.
On the other hand, the timing of the incident and the profile of the potential beneficiaries also make plausible some speculation about its nature as a false flag. It dampened the public trust for news outlets and intelligence sources and diverted the public attention from China’s ugly role in the virus pandemic; it reduced the media coverage of South Korea’s massive election frauds and interfered with the US military’s special missions during the lockdowns, among other things.
That said, however, the important question is, Will the leader’s incapacitation seriously impact the stability of the regime and the surrounding region? The media frenzy about Kim’s health has this assumption underlyingly and the public tends to take it for granted. The answer requires an understanding of the regime’s current leadership structure.
I will present an analysis of North Korea’s leadership structure following the threads of evidence available from public sources of information. The evidence supports the view that Kim is just a figurehead and a hidden separate force has controlled the regime.
Who Really Is Ruling North Korea
Kim Jong Il (Kim II) was the regime’s de facto ruler and successfully built his own political infrastructure for lasting power (1974-2011). But Kim Jong Un (Kim III) had to start from scratch being flanked only by his powerful uncle and his father’s loyal men. Many believed that the reins of Kim III would not last for more than a year and the regime soon would be engulfed by a bloody and chaotic power struggle.
That proved wrong. Kim III has ruled “with an iron fist” for eight years and controlled the regime perfectly. His father handpicked a group of loyalists to help and protect his young and inexperienced son. But to everyone’s surprise, the novice gained stronger power by purging his supporters first, one by one, including his own uncle. How could it be? That was unheard of.
Who destroyed so hastily and brutally the guardian angels his father had placed for him? Cui bono? Thus, most analysts viewed that Kim III was a puppet and a hidden power group was pulling the strings from behind. That made sense but it was not easy to identify who the real power was. And as Kim III gained control, many sidelined the question and began to accept his sole authority.
However, around the time of the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi (Feb. 27-28, 2019), the unseen power elite began to show their existence to the public. Moreover, signs of power succession became visible on the wall after Kim’s return from Hanoi. The interesting question then is, Was Kim’s long disappearance this time accidental or a staged event by the hidden power elite?
An Interior Government and Signs of Power Succession
Kim’s Hanoi trip was nationally announced by the state-media before his departure. The footage of Kim and his attachés leaving Pyongyang in the greenish bullet-proof train was broadcast and the North Koreans knew he would be out of the country for an extended period of time. But that was an unprecedented event because the regime had never made the public become aware of the leader’s move ahead of time, out of fear of a coup or a revolt.
That already proved that in the era of Kim III, unlike his father’s era, North Korea can remain politically stable with or without the leader. What does that mean? It either means that Kim III is more divine than his ancestors having completed well-managed infrastructure of governance, or that he is merely a figurehead working for the hidden Interior Government that has the control. Which one is the truth?
Soon after, evidence emerged for the existence of a hidden Interior Government. Footage of Kim having a predawn cigarette break at the Nanning train station in southern China, strolling on the ground, and chatting with his aides was secretly taken and quickly aired through a Japanese news outlet (Feb. 26). That incident had a clear message: Kim does not have security protection and the Interior Government can take him out anytime they want. In other words, it was an open threat telling him that if he accepts the US position on denuclearization, his fate would be sealed.
A couple of days after his return from Hanoi, the state-media reported that Kim had convened a meeting (Mar. 6-7) with members of the North Korean Communist Party’s Propaganda Bureau, in which he told them he was not God and they should not expect him to be error-free. That was a stunning retreat from the regime’s decades-old official credo that their leader is divine.
Moreover, the Central Executive Committee of the NKCP held an unusually lengthy conference at the end of the year (Dec. 28-31). With Kim attending it, its fifth plenary openly discussed a succession plan and recommended his sister as the next leader. And this year, for the first time, Kim did not give the New Year’s address to the nation.
Political moves such as these must be quite striking and even unimaginable if Kim is the sole authority in charge. Why would a dictator weaken his authority in front of his constituents and want to invite their challenges? That contradicts Kim’s every move during the eight years of carnage. What was the bloodbath really for? Didn’t Kim use excess violence to bolster his authority?
The implication then is that after his failure in Hanoi, his poor leadership performance began to irritate the Interior Government. A subsequent plan for his replacement was openly under way as the regime had fallen further and further into a quagmire of financial depletion. Kim’s removal can be naturally anticipated under these circumstances.
This view is echoed in its essence in an article by John Everard, UK’s ambassador to North Korea (2006-2008). Everard reasoned that Kim III was kept from attending the anniversary at the Pyongyang Mausoleum on April 15, probably because “the powerful conservative elite that stays behind the scenes tenaciously raised objections to his attendance” in order to weaken the legitimacy of his hereditary succession.
One of the common questions about North Korea is why there have been no successful coups, despite the leaders’ brutal and inhumane treatment of the politically undesirable. The answer is that the regime has a system of multi-layered surveillance in place by which even the private homes of military officers and government officials are monitored, so that dissidents are taken out early on. No doubt the Interior Government operates above the apparatus of surveillance.
After the death of Kim II, we had enough reason to be concerned about the regime’s stability and its impact on the region. But the regime is no longer owned and controlled by the Kim family, and the much-talked-about execution of Jang Song Thaek in 2013 symbolically marked the end of the family ruling.
If correct, this analysis makes possible certain predictions about the regime’s political future and its leadership structure. The regime would remain stable whoever succeeds Kim III, and its military arm would not make unpredictable provocations. Only if the Interior Government so wishes for its own intents and purposes, will apparent chaos and instability occur in North Korea.
*Max S. Kim received his PhD in cognitive science from Brandeis University and taught at the University of Washington and the State University of New York at Albany. Besides his own field of profession, he occasionally writes on regional affairs of the East Asia, including the two Koreas.