Foreign newspapers including CNN reported on Tuesday that the United States is monitoring intelligence that suggests North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un is “in grave danger” after undergoing previous surgery. Daily NK, an online newspaper based in South Korea that focuses on North Korea, cited a source in North Korea saying Kim received a cardiovascular procedure and was staying in the Mount Myohyang area in North Pyongan Province for his recovery. However, the South Korean presidential office Cheong Wa Dae said no special movement was detected.
Although these claims are yet to be confirmed, it is not unlikely to be true. The speculation started circulating last Wednesday when Kim Jong Un missed the celebration of the birth of Kim Il Sung, which is North Korea’s most important tradition, for the first time. He was also absent from the reports by North Korean media where high ranking officials paid tribute at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. The last time he was seen in public was 10 days ago at a Politburo meeting.
Even though Kim has been reportedly critically ill after undergoing surgery, it appears that the South Korean government is being cautious and believes it is more likely to be false than to be true, either because of the sensitive nature of the inter-Korean relations or the lack of information. With North Korea being one of the most secluded nations in the world, it is difficult even for highly competent U.S. and South Korean intelligence to obtain information out of it. It is also worth noting that North Korean leaders previously disappeared deliberately from the public eye to identify and punish rebels.
Even if Kim Jong Un is not in a grave danger, if his condition is grave enough to not be seen in public, North Korea would try to seclude and isolate itself even more. It might become more belligerent to the outside world while it tightens its control on its people, worried that its grip on power might loosen. This presents a great challenge for South Korea as it will have to deal with the anxiety and overreaction of a vulnerable state for which maintaining the regime is of the utmost priority. The government should keep a close eye on the North and prepare for any possible scenarios.