In 1935, when Erwin Schrödinger proposed his now-famous thought experiment, the idea was simple: The interpretation of quantum mechanics could not, while making any degree of what ordinary people call sense, be applied to everyday objects. Hence, if a cat is locked up in a box indefinitely with a radioactive substance, or poison of any kind, for a significant period of time, we do not need to open the box to know that its life force has been freed of the mortal coil. Schrödinger’s cat — and the limits of the uncertainty principle it illustrates — needs an update. Schrödinger’s Kim is at hand, and quantum physics has nothing on the mysteries surrounding North Korea’s Supreme Leader.
Speculation about the whereabouts, health and even death of Kim Jong-un began on April 15, when he did not turn up for The Day of the Sun festivities in Pyongyang. The day commemorates Kim II Sung, his grandfather and first leader of communist North Korea, and is an important public show of strength. Is Kim in self-quarantine? Is he just seeking attention via his absence? Is there some other medical ailment, serious enough for him to disappear at a time when most world leaders are eager to be seen at the frontline of the “Covid war”? Donald Trump claims he has secret knowledge about Kim’s condition. China is sending over doctors to North Korea. But, given that the box that is North Korea and its leader remains firmly sealed — and Trump’s casual relationship with facts — this merely adds another variable to the uncertainty.
Till we know, we do not know. Unlike the cat in the box, the missing dictator’s fate is uncertain. The world is chiming in with theories and even picking successors. The lesson for Schrödinger, and those fond of citing his experiment as a pop culture reference is this: The uncertainties of the quantum realm pale when faced with the facts of politics.