On October 14, North Korea’s state-controlled newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, released photos of Kim Jong-un walking with a cane and smiling beatifically at the cameras. These are the first (undated) photos of Kim to have emerged after his last sighting on September 3.
During the period of his disappearance, the foreign affairs rumour mills went into overdrive. Many theories, some rather wild, surfaced. Indeed, “WhereIsKimJong-un” became one of the most trending hashtags on Twitter. Everybody had a theory, though none could be conclusively verified. Because, simply put, claiming to be an expert on North Korea would be overstating the case — it is doubtful whether such a person actually exists.
Kim’s disappearance, reportedly his longest absence from the public eye since he was officially introduced as Kim Jong-il’s successor in 2010, earned him even more screen/ headline space than when he is physically present, “looking at things”. More recently, the sense of urgency was fuelled by Kim failing to appear at the commemoration of the 69th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean Workers’ Party. Every year since he assumed power, Kim has marked the occasion by visiting the Kumsusan Temple of the Sun, where his father and grandfather are interred.
One of the more prominent theories involved a coup. According to this theory, Kim may have been ousted by his second-in-command, General Hwang Pyong-so, who holds several critical positions in the North Korean regime. This theory was vociferously backed by Jang Jin-sung, the “poet-defector” and former North Korean propaganda officer, who claims that the stirrings of a coup started in 2013 and that the general is effectively in control. An actual witness in a matter related to North Korea is rare, so this particular theory acquired much clout. Establishing reliability became secondary.
Lending credence to the theory was the fact that Kim, in a visible departure from the norm, “severely criticised” the military while inspecting an artillery sub-unit, as reported by the Korean Central News Agency, which was read by many as symptomatic of a more entrenched disillusionment with the military. Last year, Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek, a powerful leader in the regime, was executed. It may have been the result of a falling out between uncle and nephew. But it was also emblematic of the internal fractures among the regime’s elite. Add to this the high-profile military purges, which claimed former chief of the army, General Ri Yong-ho. The clincher was the fact that the delegation which visited Incheon during the closing ceremony of the Asian Games to discuss the resumption of bilateral talks between North and South Korea was led by General Hwang Pyong-so.
But the theory was full of holes. First, a generic template that is applicable to “mainstream” states of the international order is not useful in North Korea’s case. Despite reports of possible internal dissensions, it must be remembered that North Korean military officers are all members of the Workers’ Party, and the top-level officers are also part of the political elite. Allegiance to the party and the regime, as embodied by the leader, is held paramount. That rumblings of discontent in the military could have led to an actual coup seems rather far-fetched.
Second, Kim might not have been physically sighted but his presence, especially in print, remained unchanged. The KCNA continued to sing paeans to the glory of the Dear Leader and Kim appeared in several newsworthy references. The meaning of these mentions was not lost on commentators: physical absence does not mean the waning of influence.
Third, Kim’s inability to appear at his forebears’ mausoleum this year did not automatically indicate death or a fall from grace. Fourth, General Hwang Pyong-so is likely to have led the Incheon delegation as Kim’s envoy, not as an independent renegade. Kim is the headlining act of North Korea. His removal from power would be unprecedented in a state that has remained unchanged since its inception, and it would certainly not occur with such swiftness and smoothness.
As has now been apparently demonstrated, Kim’s disappearance was rather unexceptional, although one cannot, of course, know for certain the seriousness of his medical condition. He was reported to be limping during an inspection in July this year, and many had surmised that an injury could be credited for his disappearance. This theory held merit: as a veritable god in an idiosyncratic state that professes no religion, an injury would have been cause for alarm. Imagine the majestic Kim hobbling around, looking a little worse for wear. It would humanise him for his domestic audience, and perhaps, going by North Korean logic, also make him appear weak to his larger international audience. An absence, and a little mystery surrounding it, would keep everyone on their toes and enable North Korea to play the game according to its own rules. Kim has reappeared just as suddenly as he disappeared because this policy of keeping the world guessing led to some rather ominous conclusions. Evidence of his well-being was necessary — and it is to his credit that he manages to smile so brilliantly after having overcome such odds.
The writer is senior research officer and coordinator, Nuclear Security Programme, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Delhi.