Something Afoot In North Korea?

Once again, there's speculation that something is up in the world's most closed society.

North Korea Military Parade

Rumors are circulating once again that something is up in Pyongyang, and even that Kim Jong-Un may not longer be in charge of the country. Some of this is a continuation of the story I wrote about last week reporting that Kim has been missing from several important public events in recent weeks and has been seen limping when he has appeared in public, raising speculation that he is in ill health. In recent days, however, the speculation has turned to other events supposedly occurring inside of this 21st Century Hermit Kingdom. The Huffington Post’s United Kingdom outlet, for example, passes on a report that first appeared in the Daily Mail in which a North Korean defector claims that Kim is no longer in power:

A former top official in North Korea has claimed the secretive state’s dictator Kim Jong Un “is no longer in control,” amid a flurry of speculation and conspiracy theories about where the Dear Leader actually is.

North Korea’s authoritarian leader has made no public appearances for three weeks, skipping a high-profile event he usually attends. An official documentary showed himlimping and overweight and mentioned his “discomfort.” What has followed has been a smorgasbord of media speculation about what’s eating Kim Jong Un.

Maybe it’s gout, unidentified sources told South Korean reporters – or diabetes, or high blood pressure. A thinly sourced British report said the Swiss-educated dictator has been laid low by a massive cheese addiction. A headline in Seoul offers up the possibility of a common South Korean obsession: fried chicken and beer.

So what’s going on? Maybe not much.

As is always the case, much more than what’s seen publicly is happening behind the well-guarded scenes with North Korea’s Number 1.

But just the fact that Pyongyang acknowledges that the Dear Leader is ailing suggests that he may not be suffering from anything particularly serious.

The hugely micromanaged state media, for instance, were tight-lipped when Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, suffered major health problems late in his rule.

The intense outside fascination with even scraps of information creates a scramble in South Korea and the West to play up any hint of change or turmoil in a country notorious for resisting outside prodding and for releasing information only as it sees fit.

But now, a former top counterintelligence official in North Korea, has claimed that a powerful group of officials that once reported only to Kim Jong-il, have stopped taking orders from his son.

North Korea’s Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD), has “effectively taken control of the country,” Jang Jin-sung told Vice News, hinting at a civil war playing out behind the scenes.

“On one hand, it’s people who want to maintain a regime monopoly,” Jang said. “On the other hand, it’s not like people are fighting against the regime, but in a policy sense they want to take advantage to get influence. It’s not actually consciously civil war, but there are these two incompatible forces at play.”

Rumours of a coup are unconfirmed, a US State Department spokeswoman told reporters Monday, but Jang told Vice that since 2013 Kim Jong-un has “only serving as a puppet leader with officials from the OGD pulling the strings.”


he recent health speculation started when Kim, always a large man, began showing up in pictures and video noticeably heavier, and with a distinct limp. For more than three weeks, he hasn’t been seen performing his customary public duties in state media coverage, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which monitors the North.

And then, on Thursday, his usual seat was empty at a session of the country’s rubber stamp parliament. Although Kim Jong Il occasionally missed the meetings, it was the first no-show for Kim Jong Un since he took over after his father’s death in late 2011, Seoul officials said.

The same day as the parliamentary meeting, the North aired a documentary with footage from August that showed a limping Kim inspecting a tile factory. “Our marshal continues to light the path for the people like a flame despite his discomfort,” a narrator said.

The documentary, which was shown again Monday, marked the first and only time state media have made a direct comment on Kim’s health since he took power, the Unification Ministry said.

South Korean officials told reporters Monday they don’t think anything serious is happening, but that hasn’t stopped the rumours.

Yesterday, The Telegraph added to these rumors with reports that Pyongyang itself is under “lockdown”:

The North Korean capital has been placed under lockdown, according to sources with Pyongyang, raising new questions about the stability of Kim Jong-un’s regime.

Quoting sources within North Korea, the respected New Focus International news web site has reported that a ban on new travel passes to leave or enter Pyongyang was introduced on September 27.

And while the North Korean authorities have in the past limited access to the capital, the latest restrictions even apply to permanent residents of Pyongyang, who are by definition the elite of the regime.

“This sort of action suggests there has either been an attempted coup or that the authorities there have uncovered some sort of plot against the leadership,” Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University and an authority on North Korean affairs, told The Telegraph.

“If it is a military-backed coup, then the situation in Pyongyang will be very dangerous and I have heard reports that Kim has been moved out of the capital,” he said.

“Another reason might be that some senior officials of the regime have attempted to defect and they are closing the escape routes, such as the airport and the border,” Prof. Shigemura added.

The travel restrictions were introduced just two days after a session of the North’s rubber-stamp parliament at which Mr Kim was conspicuous by his absence.

The dictator’s failure to attend the session prompted new rumours about his health and suggestions that there had been a coup or some other sort of disturbance in North Korea. Fuelled by his failure to appear in public since September 4, rumours about unrest in the secretive state have been rife on Chinese social media.

The North Korean government was sufficiently unsettled by the reports to issue a statement claiming that Mr Kim had injured both his ankles during “on-the-spot guidance tours” to factories and military units in recent weeks.

Another suggestion is that a purge has taken place in Pyongyang, although less violent than the very public arrest and subsequent execution of Jang Song-thaek, Mr Kim’s uncle and mentor, in December.

North Korea’s KCNA state media said in a brief report that Choe Ryong-hae, the vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission, and Jang Jong-nam, another senior member of the agency, were being “transferred” to other duties. Analysts say that whatever those new posts may be, they represent significant demotions.

Speculation about the inner workings of what’s going on in North Korea is likely to be fueled even more today by events that came as somewhat of a surprise to outsiders. First, three senior leaders arrived in the South with little prior announcement to attend the closing ceremonies of the Asian Games in Inchon. It was anticipated that there might be a North Korean delegation of some kind for the Closing Ceremonies, the fact that it was these particular officials who attended is seen as significant. The other development, which seems more significant than a mere visit to a sporting event, is the announcement that the North and South would resume high-level talks that had largely been on hold for more than a year ever since Kim cut them off during his last round of escalation on the peninsula. There’s no announced agenda for these talks as of yet, but the fact that they are being resumed after such a long delay seems like it could be significant in and of itself regardless of it might say about internal developments in Pyongyang. Nonetheless, these are developments that are likely to lead to more speculation about exactly what might be going on inside the world’s most secretive and paranoid regimes.

As will all things North Korean, of course, much of what we’ll hear in the media about this story absent official announcements will be little more than speculation. It’s hard to evaluate, for example, what the defector that HuffPo is reporting about in no small part there have been plenty of reports in the past from people claiming to have been former insiders in Kim’s regime, or that of his father or grandfather and those reports often turned out to be untrue and the defectors unreliable. The same could be true about the sources that The Telegraph is relying on for its reports about what’s going on in Pyongyang. At the same time, though, all of the reports coming together, along with Kim’s prolonged absence and the events that occurred today, does lead to the impression that something is going on in North Korea that’s worth keeping an eye on.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    I have often wondered if he ever had any real power. Those actually pulling the strings kept him full of Scotch and Swiss Cheese.

  2. Jeremy says:

    Massive cheese addiction? I mean, outside of just watching SyFy weekend movies, that’s a thing?

  3. MichaelB says:

    What does it mean for Pyongyang to be under “lockdown”? Is that even a meaningful thing to say compared to business as usual in North Korea?

  4. M. Bouffant says:

    Something else for speculation:
    “Choe Ryong-hae, the vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission,” is one of the senior leaders who showed up unexpectedly at the closing ceremonies in S. Korea.

  5. President Camacho says:

    Could just be a new line of shoes at the state shoe factories

  6. Franklin says:

    Maybe he’s being slowly poisoned.

  7. PAUL HOOSON says:

    A military coup by extreme military hardliners would be a real nightmare, while a coup by Chinese-style economic reformers would be much more desirable. With so much poverty and starvation rampant in the country, hopefully the second scenario would be more likely.
    Up to 90% of Asians tend to be lactose intolerant, so a cheese addiction seems unlikely. In China, most pizzas are served without cheese.

  8. Ron Beasley says:


    Up to 90% of Asians tend to be lactose intolerant, so a cheese addiction seems unlikely. In China, most pizzas are served without cheese.

    I did not know that. I used to spend a lot of time in Japan and could never understand why piazzas had no cheese – now I know.

  9. @Ron Beasley:

    I used to spend a lot of time in Japan and could never understand why piazzas had no cheese

    It gums up the water pumps for the fountains.

  10. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    The lactose intolerance thing doesn’t seem to extend into Korea. One popular dish here is “oven spaghetti” in which the pasta is cooked in a ramekin or other oven-proof bowl under a thick layer of mozzarella cheese. Also we have cheese cutlets and fried mozzarella sticks.