North Korea is still sending letters and gifts to foreign leaders and domestic workers in the name of its leader, Kim Jong Un. Its news media brims, as usual, with panegyrical propaganda extolling Kim’s leadership. South Korea reiterates that it has detected “nothing unusual” in the North. President Donald Trump has called “incorrect” and “fake” a report that Kim was “in grave danger” after surgery.
All this has done little to stop the rumor mill churning about Kim’s health and the fate of the nuclear state — for the simple reason that North Korea has not reported a public appearance by its leader for two weeks. Nor has it responded to lurid claims about his health.
The lack of real information from the hermetic country is giving rise to rampant rumor mongering, leaving North Korean experts, foreign officials and intelligence agencies to parse through it all for signs of the truth.
Depending on the news outlet or social media post, Kim, believed to be 36, is recuperating after a minor health issue like a sprained ankle, or he is “in grave danger” after a heart surgery. Or he has become “brain dead” or is in a “vegetative state” after a heart-valve surgery gone wrong at the hands of a nervous North Korean surgeon or one of the doctors China dispatched to treat him. Or Kim is grounded with COVID-19. Where did he get it? From one of those Chinese doctors.
One rumor circulating in South Korean messaging apps claims that after French doctors could not wake Kim from his “coma,” Kim Pyong Il, a half brother of Kim’s late father, seized power with the help of pro-Chinese elites in Pyongyang, the North’s capital. It goes on to say that Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, has been detained while Beijing is secretly bargaining with Washington over the future of North Korea and its nuclear weapons.
Seoul has questioned the accuracy of the unconfirmed reports, while the South Korean news media appears to dismiss most of them as rumors spreading through Chinese social media and beyond. But they cannot be completely ignored, since North Korea is so secretive that the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies have been unable to penetrate Kim’s inner circles.