Kim Jong Un Makes Public Appearance

The reports of the the North Korean dictator's death have been greatly exaggerated.

When the Great Leader missed the annual celebration of the birth of his grandfather, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, speculation naturally started. And it grew for the three weeks of unexplained absence. He has now re-emerged.

NYT (“Kim Jong-un Is Back. What Happens When He’s Really Gone?“):

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, demonstrated his flair for the dramatic this weekend when he reappeared after three weeks of unexplained absence, cutting the ribbon on a fertilizer factory — and quieting rumors that he was gravely ill.

But those weeks of hand-wringing over Mr. Kim’s fate, and North Korea’s future, showed again how little the world knows about what’s happening in the opaque, nuclear-armed country, and how vulnerable it is to misinformation about it.

There seems little doubt now that Mr. Kim is alive and well. On Saturday, North Korean state media released photos and video footage of him smiling, chatting and walking before a large crowd at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, which it said took place on Friday.

While it’s possible that this is old footage, most analysts believe it’s genuine. Kim is very much alive.

But the panic and speculation that have been ongoing in recent days point to real problems in both the DPRK’s political structure and our own knowledge of that society.

[T]he world simply doesn’t know what would happen to the North and its nuclear arsenal should he suddenly die or become incapacitated.

Unlike his grandfather and his father, Kim Jong-il, both of whom spent years grooming their chosen sons as successors, Mr. Kim, 36, ​has no heir apparent. He is said to have three children, all too young to govern; his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, has become a trusted aide, but there is skepticism that the North’s elderly generals would answer to a young woman.

“If anything, the past 10 days of frenzied speculation have revealed our weaknesses in intelligence and in reporting on what is happening inside North Korea,” said Jean H. Lee, a North Korea expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “Regardless, it has refocused our attention on Kim, his health, stability in North Korea and the family’s hold on power.”

Most of what we know about the Hermit is either extrapolated from the few clues we have or gleaned from defectors, who are inherently unreliable as sources. We’re essentially just guessing.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bill says:

    reappeared after three weeks of unexplained absence, cutting the ribbon on a fertilizer factory

    As I wrote late yesterday, who says the North Koreans don’t have a sense of humor.

  2. steve says:

    Does his cuting a ribbon at a fertilizer factory say more about his health or the financial health of his country?


  3. de stijl says:

    There is a lot of credence allowed to NK state media in these reports.

    I do not take the assertion as fact. It might be true. But this a state organ which daily practices disinformation as SOP.

    In this matter, I would want international press reports of a live event to be certain.

  4. Hal_10000 says:

    I would note that North Korea is claiming, rather absurdly, that they have no COVID cases. I would not be surprised if there is a connection between Kim staying out of the public eye and COVID (e.g., he either had it or is avoiding an infected populace).

  5. Tyrell says:

    Has anyone thought that this might be a double? They do that in those kinds of countries.

  6. de stijl says:

    I play a game where inheritance rules are wicked important.

    You can choose to start higher up the ladder, but I always start off as a Count in some backwater. My current run’s goal is to re-Paganize Europe from Sweden.

    In the base game you start in 1066 and it runs for centuries. It is an RPG, but is essentially a dynasty simulator.

    Literally 1000s of hours.

    My playable character could die tomorrow so you have to nail inheritance. And there are so many different rule sets depending on your culture. So, so many.

    Agnatic, cognatic, agnatic-cognatic, tannistry, primogeniture, elective, tribal, … Basically all are patrinileal.

    The gameplay mechanics sort of want you to paint the map in your colors, but that takes centuries, and a run will require you to play as multiple PCs, so you have to nail inheritance.

    I now know way more about systemic patriarchy. If you have a child and it’s a boy, you get psyched. If it’s a girl, deflated.

    Boys are potential heirs.

    Girls are for betrothal and marriage in the dominant cultures. To cement alliances, secure non-aggression pacts, seed future rulers. It is brutally pragmatic.

    Changing the rules to allow more tolerance takes decades of politicking and favors and gifts and arranging your council appropriately.

    Pagan cultures vary, but as a rule are more tolerant of women as rulers or on council.

    I do not know Korean culture except in the most basic terms, but my understanding is patrilineal.

    If dude is dead or incapable, I do not know if Kim Yo-Jong or the uncle is next in line.

  7. CSK says:

    It’s nonsensical to think that NK has no Covid-19 cases. They rely on China for almost 90% of their trade. And as of April 2, NK had 509 people in quarantine.

    @Hal_10000: I agree that Kim could be quarantined, not because he’s infectious but because the populace is. This fertilizer factory photo op could have been done under very carefully controlled circumstances.

  8. de stijl says:

    A totalitarian cult of personality spread over generations is a tough road.

    Especially if you are an economic sinkhole, and a geopolitical nobody (except for the possibility of nukes and delivery systems, and are nearby to Seoul and the rest of SK.)

    One day your patron will tire of your monkeyshines.

    Going the rogue state path was the best way forward back then, but uncle China has bigger goals and better prospects now.

    The embarrassing and innapropriate nephew will be brought to leash.

  9. de stijl says:


    The factory photo could have been from months ago. No contemporaneous reporting besides from NK state media as far as I can tell. Absent independent reporting, we are trusting NK state media.

    It might be true.

    North Korea is not a tourist destination, but if I were a betting person, I would wager Pyongyang is awash with the Rona.

    Too many folks living in too small apartments were the breadwinners go to a job cheek by jowel to others.

    Again, NK is not a tourist destination but I assume a lot of Chinese government types shuffle in and out a lot.

    If it got a foothold, community spread would be brutal in Pyongyang and urban areas.

  10. CSK says:

    @de stijl:
    I think you’re right, for all the reasons you cited: people living and working cheek-by-jowl in conditions that are far from optimal even when there’s no pandemic. And yes, I would think plenty of travelers from China would be crossing into NK.

  11. CSK says:

    The tabloids are speculating that Kim might have had a right radial artery puncture, which would explain, they say, a mark on his wrist.

  12. Bill says:

    @de stijl:

    One day your patron will tire of your monkeyshines.

    Frederick Forsyth in his latest novel ‘The Fox’ had a subplot where a computer hacker got into NK’s system. A NK missile launch occurs, and rather than the rocket going to the Western Pacific Ocean, it hits China. A week later, China invades NK and shortly after that, Kim is deposed.

  13. dazedandconfused says:

    It’s plausible the Norks have a pre-set plan to get Kim isolated at the very beginning of any plague and they would keep it hush-hush because cowering in fear of anything isn’t in keeping with the image of a super-man Dear Leader. The family is amazing I tell you, amazing! His dad one scored 38 under par and has 11 holes in one in a row.

  14. de stijl says:


    Best golfer ever! Screw that Tiger Tiger Woods y’all dude.

    It’s true because NK state media reported it.