Kim Jong-un’s continuing disappearance has led to speculation about whose finger is on the North Korean nuclear weapon arsenal. The Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has not been seen in over a month. Why should the world care? Does it matter to anyone outside of North Korea if he is vacationing, ill, deposed or dead? The fact that North Korea is a nuclear power, though without the capability to launch nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles at the United States, makes the tiny communist nation’s stability of interest for everyone.
Kim made his last public appearance on Sept. 3 at a concert where his only duty was to sit and smile. Since then he has been noticeably absent from the public eye. Footage from a July event showed him struggling with weight gain and limping badly. Many people speculate that Kim is simply in a luxurious bed somewhere recuperating, with his hands firmly holding the reins of power, but others with an eye on North Korea are not so sure.
Kim did not simply disappear from public view, he has missed some important affairs. First, his chair remained empty at the Supreme People’s Assembly meeting, which is only convened once or twice a year to rubber-stamp Kim’s decisions and so largely fulfills a ceremonial role. Then he missed two commemorative celebrations that mark his family’s rise to power and the founding of the Workers’ party. According to Victor Cha of Georgetown University it would be as if an important official were to skip the 4th of July. It seems that Kim would attend these events if possible because much of the power of the DPRK’s dictator comes from the “cult of personality.” Daily displays of authority and benevolence give the Supreme Leader prestige and popularity. Vanishing from the view of his people may give them time to question his infallibility.
In addition to not seeing Kim, the world has been seeing a surprising amount of other North Korean officials. Hwang Pyong-so, Kim’s number two, led a delegation on an unexpected good will visit to Incheon, South Korea for the closing of the Asian Games. North Korea sent a large delegation of athletes to the games. Reportedly, the sports minister who took the team was the highest ranking official to enter South Korea in five years. That has since changed.
Next, North Korean officials begun to be more open with the West. Last Tuesday the DPRK deputy ambassador agreed to answer questions at the United Nations. He declined to talk about Kim Jong-un, but was willing to admit that international sanctions were hurting the economy and people of his country. North Korea also set up human rights talks with the European Union. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry published a report cataloguing abuses including North Korea’s infamous prison camps. Of course, North Korean officials denied any wrong-doing and called communism “the most advantageous” system. The fact that North Korea wants to meet with the EU to discuss human rights is a huge change in its international policy. Furthermore, another North Korean official has stated that the DPRK is willing to restart the six-party nuclear talks, which include Russia, the United States, China, Japan and South Korea.
All of this outreach seems to be an about-face for North Korea. Kim Jong-un’s previous hardline position kept the nation isolated and at odds with the rest of the world. The fact that high-ranking officials, and not Kim himself, are making international appearances casts doubt on his leadership.
Since Kim has taken over he has rid his inner circle of anyone loyal to his father. In 2013 he publicly executed his uncle Jang Sung-taek. It is reported that Kim has been trying to erase Jang’s existence with extensive executions of his family. After assuming power, Kim replaced half of the top leaders. It does not seem unlikely that the elite officials, the members of the Presidium, could have taken matters into their own hands rather than obey an immature tyrant.
The true state of politics within North Korea is an impenetrable mystery. It is disconcerting that the world knows so little about a country it fears so much. Given its nuclear capabilities, any change of government needs to be smooth and stable. Many feel that the only scenario worse than a communist dictator who hates America is a rogue element with nothing to lose. Whether orchestrated by Kim or accomplished without his authority, the moves made by the North Korean officials seem to be a small step in the right direction. The world is waiting to see what happens, because Kim Jong-un’s continuing disappearance had led to speculation about whose finger is on the North Korean nuclear arsenal.
By: Rebecca Savastio