Communist Normalcy: How Authoritarian Leaders Disappear and Return
It is to be hoped that the world learned during the recent “absence” of Kim Jong-un from the public eye that bouts of spectacular overreaction, especially where based on exceedingly scant evidence, are unhelpful. In other words, let us not declare the possibility, nay even the probability, of a military coup in North Korea when even the organization that originally used the word “coup,” New Focus, did not in truth come close to claiming that Kim had been physically toppled. Frothy pronouncements are supposed to follow hard evidence.
In this context, recall that the health, or otherwise, of communist (or “communist”) authoritarian leaders has always been a state secret. Largely baseless speculation as to what is impacting or influencing said leaders is therefore very much the norm. Within this context, irrespective of the fact that Kim has now reappeared, Nick Miller reviews the past disappearances of the Kim family. — Christopher Green, Co-editor
Communist Normalcy: How Authoritarian Leaders Disappear and Return
by Nick Miller
The Progenitor: Kim Il-sung | While studying the health of Kim Il-sung in the late 1970s, Tai Sung An found that Western intelligence believed Kim had traveled to Romania in 1974 to have a malignant tumor on his neck removed. Kim stopped making daily appearances from November 1975, not returning until February 7-8, 1976 for the 28th anniversary of the North Korean Army; the state media promptly emphasized that Kim had a healthy and energetic appearance. There was also a rumor that Kim’s New Year’s message had been pre-recorded, something that was not normally done, and that it only lasted 20 minutes instead of the standard 60. On Feb 17, 1976, the media declared that it was a North Korean citizen’s duty to help lessen Kim Il-sung’s immense burden, and he made very few public appearances that year; among other things, he was absent from the 28th anniversary of the founding of the DPRK in September the same year.
As maintenance of his health was a critical factor in Kim’s capacity to orchestrate his dynastic succession plan in 1977, Kim Il-sung told his doctors that, in order for him and Kim Jong-il to both live forever, his physicians were to analyze more than 1,750 herbs that could be key to reaching that goal. One of those physicians, Kim So-yeon, said later that the search for immortality led Kim to stop taking care of himself, and his frequent blood transfusions ended up changing his blood type from AB to B.
In one of the more bizarre events during the period, on November 16, 1986 North Korean loudspeakers near the DMZ began declaring that Kim Il-sung had passed away. The broadcasts started at 12:50pm and lasted till 8pm, saying that Kim Il-sung had been shot and Kim Jong-il would succeed him. North Korean flags near the inter-Korean border were flown at half-mast.
To further add to the confusion, one of the broadcasts mentioned that Vice Marshall O Jin-u, the defense minister of the day, had taken power and that the people supported him. However, North Korean state media continued their daily broadcasts like nothing had happened, and North Korean embassies in China and India stated that rumors of Kim Il-sung’s death were fabrications. Even as South Korea began reporting that Kim Il-sung had died, he appeared in public the following day at Sunan Airport in Pyongyang to greet Mongolian leader Jambyn Batmonh. The United States did not confirm South Korean reports of loudspeaker broadcasts or flags flying low.
Like Father, Like Son: Kim Jong-il | At the time of Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994 there was no consensus within Western intelligence agencies regarding Kim Jong-il’s birth place, year, marital status, personality, health problems, height, or weight.
Morgan Clippinger’s analysis of North Korean politics in the early 1980s saw that as Kim Jong-il was being groomed to succeed his father in the 1970s and 1980s, he rarely made public appearances or met with foreign dignitaries. Supreme secrecy was kept, seemingly in order to prevent North Korea, with its heretical hereditary succession plans, from losing the support or aid of the Soviet Union, China, or other Soviet satellites. During this period, Kim Jong-il was referred to as “the Party Center” in media documents. Chongryon, the pro-North Korean organization in Japan, started a rumor that Kim Jong-il had been fatally injured in an auto-accident and that a UN based North Korean diplomat had raised the possibility of an alternate candidate to succeed Kim Il Sung. From 1977 to 1979, Kim Jong-il disappeared from public view, and then did it again after meeting Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Kapitsa in November 1984. He did not appear again until February 1985. Yung-hwan Jo thought that these extended disappearance were potential signs that the succession plan was in trouble, or that Kim Jong-il was suffering from ill health.
After his father’s death on July 8, 1994, Kim Jong-il only made a brief public appearance on July 19. He appeared incredibly sickly, which fueled speculation of health problems. He did not appear again for another 87 days. In mid-August, state media released a warning to “ambitious persons and conspirators” who might wish to undermine the Workers’ Party. This was followed by the distribution of anti-Kim Jong-il leaflets in the diplomatic quarter of Pyongyang.
It was expected that Kim Jong-il would be elevated as official successor after a state funeral and memorial service, but the North Korean media stated that new government positions would not be filled until a 100-day period of mourning was observed. This period passed without Kim Jong-il being named successor, and there was uncertainty at the time that other family members could have removed him from power. The main rivals to Kim Jong-il were seen as being: Kim Song-ae, Kim Jong-il’s stepmother; Kim Yong-ju, Kim Il-sung’s brother, who was made a Politburo member and Vice-President of the DPRK in 1992; and Kim Song-ae’s son, Kim Pyong-il. Western and South Korean analysts allegedly believed at the time that Kim Jong-il had diabetes, high blood pressure, and cirrhosis of the liver.
A Moment of Crisis: Stroke and Leadership Transition | Between August and November of 2008 there were conflicting reports about Kim Jong-il’s health. U.S. intelligence believed he may have had a stroke and was in hiding to recuperate. Doctor Francois-Xavier Roux, a French based neurosurgeon, who went to Pyongyang in 1991 to give Kim a pacemaker and again in October 2008 to treat him, told the French daily newspaper Le Figaro that Kim Jong-il had indeed suffered a stroke, had not needed an operation, and that his health was improving. He also said that photos published on October 4 that year of Kim at a football match and, a week later, inspecting a military unit appeared recent and authentic.
Some articles in 2009 stated the stroke did not stop Kim from keeping up his drinking habit when he met a visiting Chinese envoy, and that he could have been drinking heavily to show that he was in good health. Dennis Blair, then-Director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Feb 12, 2009 that U.S. intelligence agencies believed that he had recovered from his stroke and was still making “key decisions.” On July 12, 2009 South Korean cable television news network YTN reported via unidentified Chinese and South Korean intelligence sources that Kim Jong-il had pancreatic cancer. Kim’s gaunt appearance in April 2009 only added to speculation about his ill health. As analysts were looking for viable candidates to succeed Kim, some Western analysts theorized that Kim Jong-un could be suffering from epilepsy.
The Young General: Kim Jong-un | As for Kim Jong-un’s health problems, what needs to be remembered is that North Korea is not above playing games with South Korea and the United States to see how it changes its foreign policy or military stance in response. North Korea has a history of keeping people guessing, and obfuscation (“Chosun must be wrapped in a fog“) plays into their hands. A disappearing Kim does not a concrete sign of regime change make.