A high-level North Korean defector has suggested it’s likely that Kim Jong Un has health issues of some kind, but cautioned against reading too much into conflicting reports on the status of the North Korean leader, insisting only a handful of people have access to the truth.
Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who was elected to South Korea’s parliament earlier this month, told CNN that Kim’s absence from celebrations marking the birth of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on April 15, point to a physical ailment of some type.
Known as the Day of the Sun, April 15 is the country’s most significant date. In previous years, it’s been marked with newsworthy events, such as satellite launches and large-scale military parades.
“Kim Jong Un is not only the leader of North Korea, but he is the grandson of Kim Il Sung… to North Korean eyes it is really abnormal,” said Thae, of Kim’s absence from official events.
“I’m not quite sure whether he really had some surgery or whatever, but one thing is clear… he cannot stand up by himself or walk properly.”
Thae’s comments, for which he did not provide any supporting evidence, follow mounting speculation about Kim’s health and whereabouts. Last week, CNN reported that the United States is monitoring intelligence that Kim is “in grave danger after a surgery,” according to a US official.
A South Korean newspaper, Daily NK, also reported that Kim had undergone a cardiovascular procedure and was receiving treatment.
According to Thae, however, most of the rumors currently circulating are unlikely to be accurate or informed, given the intense secrecy surrounding the North Korean leader.
“The only people who can confirm his real condition might be Kim Jong Un’s wife or his sister, or his close aides,” said Thae.
“Those rumours of where he is now whether he has any surgery, I don’t think that is really based on the facts.”
He pointed to the death of Kim Jong Il, which was kept secret for two days. Even the North Korean Foreign Minister was not informed until an hour before the official announcement, Thae said.
‘Alive and well’?
On Sunday, Moon Chung-in, a top South Korean foreign policy adviser, told CNN that Kim was “alive and well” in the eastern coastal city of Wonsan. And on Monday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in made no mention of Kim’s health during a meeting with senior advisers.
In comments marking the second anniversary of his first inter-Korean summit with Kim, the South Korean leader said that the current coronavirus crisis gripping much of the world could be a “new opportunity for inter-Korean cooperation.”
He later vowed to create a peaceful future between the two nations based on his mutual trust with Kim.
The assured tone emanating from South Korea, coupled with the suggestion that Kim is in Wonsan, lines up with speculation from other experts.
A website specialising in North Korean affairs published satellite images on Saturday showing a train parked at a railway station serving Kim’s luxurious Wonsan compound.
The train had been parked there since at least April 21 and “probably” belonged to Kim, said researchers.
However, Thae warned that the train could be a diversion tactic: when he was still a North Korean diplomat, the government would often send his train to different parts of the country, knowing it could be seen from satellites.
Similar tactics are used with light, he added. A widespread lack of electricity means that that light after dark is a luxury enjoyed by high-ranking people like Kim or his officers. To hide his location from American satellites at night, the government will keep lights on in empty offices or keep guest houses lit as though Kim was staying there.
“Kim Jong Un’s regime does these kind of activities in order to mislead the world opinion or the American satellite imagery,” Thae said.
These elaborate tactics to disguise Kim’s status are hardly new – Kim’s daily routine and health are some of North Korea’s most closely guarded secrets. His movements and whereabouts are protected with an intense secrecy, and very few details about the country are revealed that are not state-sanctioned.
Even discussing rumors or misinformation about his health can get you in trouble with the state’s security services, experts say.