Rumors surrounding Kim Jong Un’s health intensified Sunday as Asian media outlets claimed that he had died or is currently ‘gravely ill’.
The vice director of Hong Kong Satellite Television (HKSTV) Shijian Xingzou says that a ‘very solid source’ has told her the North Korean despot, 36, is already dead.
She has 15 million followers on Chinese social media Weibo, and is also the niece of one of the country’s foreign ministers.
Separately, a Japanese media outlet claims that Kim has gone into a ‘vegetative state’ after he underwent heart surgery earlier in the month.
However, a 250-metre-long train belonging to the dictator has been spotted near to his Wonsan holiday compound as recently as Thursday in satellite photos, according to news website 38North.
Although Kim’s whereabouts remains unknown, the train’s presence at a nearby railway station reserved for the Kim family in the ‘elite’ area on the east coast suggests he has visited the hideaway.
The most recent photos, from April 23, show the train preparing for departure.
The Wonsan complex includes nine large guesthouses and recreation center, as well as a shooting range and covered dock believed to be for a yacht. At the center of the grounds is a large building that was constructed shortly after Kim Jong Un came to power in 2014.
Kim’s last confirmed public appearance was two weeks ago, when he led a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party committee of policymakers, according to North Korean state media.
China has dispatched a team to North Korea including medical experts to advise on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to three people familiar with the situation.
The trip by the Chinese doctors and officials comes amid conflicting reports about the health of the North Korean leader, with western outlets unable to immediately determine what the trip by the Chinese team signalled in terms of Kim’s health.
A report by the weekly Shukan Gendai in Japan claimed on Friday that North Korea’s dictator is currently in a ‘vegetative state’ after having heart surgery earlier in the month.
The outlet cited a Chinese medic who is believed to have been sent as part of the team to treat Kim Jong Un after a delay in a simple heart procedure had left the leader severely ill.
The source cited by the news outlet claimed that Jong Un was visiting the countryside when he clutched his chest and fell to the ground. A doctor with him at the time is said to have performed CPR and accompanied him to a hospital.
However, the reporting of the deaths of previous North Korean leaders has taken time to emerge officially.
Kim Jong-il, the current leader’s father, died of a heart attack while travelling by train two days before it was announced publicly.
It is also not unusual for Kim or other North Korean officials to go weeks without public appearances.
In 2014, Kim was not seen out in public for 40 days, before he reemerged appearing to walk with a limp and using a cane, after he reportedly suffered from ‘an uncomfortable medical condition’.
While there is no official proof of the dictator’s death, the hashtag #KimJongUndead was trending on twitter on Friday following the report.
A delegation led by a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department left Beijing for North Korea on Thursday, two of the people said. The department is the main Chinese body dealing with neighbouring North Korea.
The sources declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter.
The Liaison Department could not be reached by Reuters for comment late on Friday. China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment late on Friday.
Daily NK, a Seoul-based website, reported earlier this week that Kim was recovering after undergoing a cardiovascular procedure on April 12. It cited one unnamed source in North Korea.
South Korean government officials and a Chinese official with the Liaison Department challenged subsequent reports suggesting that Kim was in grave danger after surgery. South Korean officials said they had detected no signs of unusual activity in North Korea.
On Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump also downplayed earlier reports that Kim was gravely ill. ‘I think the report was incorrect,’ Trump told reporters, but he declined to say if he had been in touch with North Korean officials.
On Friday, a South Korean source told Reuters their intelligence was that Kim was alive and would likely make an appearance soon. The person said he did not have any comment on Kim’s current condition or any Chinese involvement.
An official familiar with U.S. intelligence said that Kim was known to have health problems but they had no reason to conclude he was seriously ill or unable eventually to reappear in public.
A U.S. State department spokeswoman had no comment. U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, when asked about Kim’s health on Fox News after Trump spoke said, ‘I don’t have anything I can share with you tonight, but the American people should know we’re watching the situation very keenly.’
North Korea is one of the world’s most isolated and secretive countries, and the health of its leaders is treated as a matter of state security. Reuters has not been able to independently confirm any details on Kim’s whereabouts or condition.
North Korea’s state media last reported on Kim’s whereabouts when he presided over a meeting on April 11. State media did not report that he was in attendance at an event to mark the birthday of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on April 15, an important anniversary in North Korea.
Kim, believed to be 36, has disappeared from coverage in North Korean state media before. In 2014, he vanished for more than a month and North Korean state TV later showed him walking with a limp. Speculation about his health has been fanned by his heavy smoking, apparent weight gain since taking power and family history of cardiovascular problems.
When Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, suffered a stroke in 2008, South Korean media reported at the time that Chinese doctors were involved in his treatment along with French physicians.
Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping made the first state visit in 14 years by a Chinese leader to North Korea, an impoverished state that depends on Beijing for economic and diplomatic support.
China is North Korea’s chief ally and the economic lifeline for a country hard-hit by U.N. sanctions, and has a keen interest in the stability of the country with which it shares a long, porous border.
Kim is a third-generation hereditary leader who came to power after his father Kim Jong Il died in 2011 from a heart attack. He has visited China four times since 2018.
Trump held unprecedented summits with Kim in 2018 and 2019 as part of a bid to persuade him to give up North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
One was a beacon of optimism in post-WWII America, the other presides over a brutal Communist regime set on building a nuclear weapon.
But despite the differences, Kim Jong-un believes he is living in his own version of Camelot, the youthful world of John F. Kennedy.
A new book claims that the leader of North Korea sees himself as Kennedy and his wife Ri Sol Ju, with her impeccable manners and fashionable wardrobe, as the parallel of Jackie Kennedy.
Kim ‘literally and figuratively groomed’ Ri so she would look the part of First Lady, writes former CIA analyst Jung H. Pak.
She says that Kim made Ri a ‘walking advertisement’ for his image of North Korea as a modern, prosperous country with water parks and ski parks to reinforce that vision.
Her book ‘Becoming Kim Jong-un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator’ is out next week at a time of intense speculation over Kim’s health.
Recent reports claimed that the 36-year-old was seriously ill after a heart procedure, speculation that was fanned when he failed to show up for the anniversary of North Korea’s founding father Kim Il Sung, Kim’s grandfather, on April 15.
Some reports have said that Kim Yo-jong, Kim’s sister, could be ready to take over from him if he dies.
But that glosses over the importance of Ri in Kim’s image of himself, writes Pak.
Having carried out dozens of bloody purges of his regime, Kim is only too aware of the jockeying for position within the North Korean elite.
So Ri’s elevation may be a ‘deliberate attempt to fend off any challengers’ to his succession.
The couple have at least one child – former NBA star Dennis Rodman held one baby of theirs on a trip to Pyongyang – but they are thought to have two more.
Even in his 30s Kim is ‘planning for the long haul and plotting a strategy for the duration of not just his life, but his children’s life as well’.
The comparison between the Kims and the Kennedys on the face of it seems unlikely.
The Kennedys are Massachusetts-based Democratic political dynasty while Kim’s grandfather was a nationalist guerrilla who founded the hermit nation after being hand picked by the Soviets.
Becoming Kim Jong-un says that the parallel lies in how both of them project the image they want their country to be.
In the case of North Korea, Kim wanted to construct an ‘alternate reality’ from the truth, which is that hundreds of thousands of people are locked in gulags and labor camps.
Kim went on a building spree of amusement parks and luxury resorts to lure in Chinese tourists and distract from the repression and the poverty which makes up daily life in North Korea.
John Park, a North Korea expert at Harvard University, said: ‘There’s this idea of a North Korean dream and Kim Jong-un being the creator of this dream and his wife being essentially the face of this dream.
‘This type of dynamic is sort of an analogy for the future of North Korea overall’.
Nowhere is this more the case than Ri, who like Jackie Kennedy came from the elite of her society.
Ri was a former cheerleader and a member of the Unhasu Orchestra, an elite troupe handpicked by the state for their looks, loyalty and talent.
She was introduced to the world seven months after Kim took power in 2011 when she was seen with him at a concert.
From ‘Comrade Ri’ she soon became ‘Respected First Lady’ as she appeared by Kim’s side more often.
What was surprising was her Western clothes and her appearance which was a striking departure from past practices.
Kim’s grandfather railed against make-up and ‘pretty dresses’ and under his rule it was illegal for women to wear trousers when not at work.
Ri by contrast wore on her first appearance a bright green blouse with a fitted skirt and peep toe black pumps – the Huffington Post gushed: ‘She is stylist indeed!’
On another occasion watching a flight contest with officers of the Korean People’s Air Force her hair was partly rolled back, her lipstick was a tasteful muted pink shade and she was wearing a blue dress and three quarter length suit with a sparkly brooch.
In a sea of men wearing suits her colorful attire was a ‘dramatic contrast’.
According to Pak, Ri was ‘channeling Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge’ and ‘evoking the storied elegance of Jackie Kennedy’.
Kim was ‘literally and figuratively grooming her to be Pyongang’s First Lady’, the book says.
Ri’s diplomatic debut was on March 5, 2018 hosting the South Korean delegation to set up the first inter-Korean summit which would occur a month later.
South Korean National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong committed a major faux pas over dinner when he asked Kim: ‘Low about you stopped smoking? It’s bad for your health
The table froze as no one criticized Kim but Ri clapped her hands and said: ‘I always ask him to quit smoking but he won’t listen to me’.
She defused the tension immediately and both parties moved on.
Ri went to Beijing to meet with President Xi in March 2018 and subsequent trips to China.
Chinese and South Korean media were ablaze about her outfit and Chinese Internet users fawned over her so much the Communist party censored them because they were making President Xi’s wife look bad.
Ri was with her husband for the inter-Korean summit the following month which laid the groundwork for Kim’s historic meeting with Donald Trump, a sign of how vital she is to her husband.
Pak writes that Kim sees Ri as ‘another component of his power’ and she has ‘personified the charm in the North Korean charm offensive’.
Ri is somebody who ‘provides the regime with a softer side, a thin veneer of style and good humor to mask the brutality, starvation and deprivation endured by the people’
Like Jackie Kennedy, Ri is a ‘glamorous and devoted wife’ and a ‘glimpse of an emerging material and consumer culture which Kim seems to be actively promoting’.
Through her he has an ‘opportunity to channel the consumerist energies of the North Korean people’, the book says.
In that sense at least, she is more like Jackie Kennedy than you might think.