They, too, have been asking about the chatter that Kim, who has ruled North Korea for almost eight and a half years — about eight years longer than many analysts gave him — is a goner.
There’s been panic buying in the capital, where locals are stocking up on everything from laundry detergent and rice to electronics to liquor. They started snapping up all imported products first, but in the past few days there’s been a run on domestically produced items, too, such as canned fish and cigarettes.
Helicopters have been flying low over Pyongyang, sources have told me, and trains within North Korea and also over the border in northern China have been disrupted.
If Kim turns out to be fine, it would hardly be the first time that reports of the death of a North Korean leader had been greatly exaggerated. Japanese and South Korean newspapers killed off his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, and his father, Kim Jong Il, multiple times in the years before either man actually died.
Having published a biography of Kim, I’ve been bombarded with questions over the past week about whether the whispers are true.
I’m always very cautious with these kinds of rumors, given the number of times they’ve turned out to be wrong. The short answer right now is: I don’t know. None of us will know until either North Korea tells us or he waddles back into view.
This time, however, the rumors feel different. The talk that Kim Jong Un had some kind of heart surgery has had a stubborn persistence, making the real question his condition.
Some analysts agree that this time it seems like more than the usual scuttlebutt.
“We are potentially facing a serious crisis,” said Andrei Lankov, a respected historian of North Korea. Lankov said he believes something is “definitely wrong” with Kim.
Others say there are plausible explanations for his absence. Maybe Kim missed the ceremony on April 15 to mark his grandfather’s birth — the most important day on the North Korean calendar — because of concerns about the coronavirus.
“Maybe he’s practicing social distancing,” said Alexandre Mansourov, who studied at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang and analyzes North Korean leadership. He said he didn’t see any reason for alarm.
Maybe Kim decided not to go because he’s growing into the role. After all, he broke with tradition on New Year’s Day and delivered a written plan for the year ahead instead of delivering it, State of the Union-style, as usual.
“It’s his ninth year in power,” Mansourov said. “He’s more comfortable now. He’s doing things his own way and leaving his own mark.”
But already, the talk is affecting how the people most important to Kim — the Pyongyang apparatchiks who keep him in power — view their supposedly invincible leader.
It’s difficult to exaggerate how serious an event his death would be for North Korea, for a regime that has always been run by a man called Kim.
The Soviets installed Kim Il Sung to lead their client state upon its foundation in 1948, and he passed the reins to his son, Kim Jong Il, in 1994. That hereditary handover in itself was unprecedented in communist history, but the family did it again in 2011, when Kim Jong Il died and his 27-year-old son took over.
North Korea has now existed for longer than the Soviet Union, and Kim Jong Un has been in power longer than any of his counterparts in the region: longer than the prime minister of Japan and the presidents of South Korea and China, and more than twice as long as President Trump has led the United States.
Kim I and Kim II were both elderly when they died, and the latter in particular looked sickly. Both men left a succession plan that had seen their heirs elevated through the ranks of the military and the Workers’ Party. And in both cases, the deaths were announced a few days later on television in a quivering voice by Ri Chun Hee, the Walter Cronkite of North Korea.
It was Ri who announced that Kim Jong Un, the “Great Successor to the revolutionary cause,” was ready to lead.
What if Kim Jong Un dies? There is no clear successor for him.
The Kims have claimed their right to lead through a mythical blood line they trace back to Mount Paektu, the legendary birthplace of the Korean people. Kim has constantly played up this Paektu bloodline to make the case that he’s a legitimate ruler.
This is the reason he often rides his white horse on that mountain — and it’s also the reason he had his half brother assassinated in Malaysia in 2017. Kim Jong Nam could have theoretically claimed the top job because he also had the Paektu blood pulsing through his veins.
But there is no obvious male heir to Kim Jong Un. He’s believed to have one son, but he’s barely a toddler. He has an older brother, an Eric Clapton superfan who was reportedly passed over for being “effeminate.” And an uncle, his father’s half brother who had been ambassador in Eastern Europe, a sort of cushy exile for almost four decades, until he was recently recalled to Pyongyang.
The baby clearly isn’t ready to lead, and the two others have no networks or profile inside North Korea.
That leaves only one obvious candidate: Kim’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong, a woman who has taken on an increasingly prominent role in the regime, supporting her brother at summits and acting as his envoy to South Korea.
She runs North Korea’s propaganda division and makes sure her brother looks his best, and she is clearly capable. She has been issuing statements in her own name in recent weeks — another piece of kindling for the rumor fire — but she has no military credentials. There has been no propaganda campaign around her. The state media has never even disclosed that she’s the First Sister.
She also has one other major shortcoming: She’s a woman.
The strict Confucian traditions of both Koreas value age and maleness; Kim Yo Jong has neither. Asking the octogenarian old guard to accept Kim Jong Un was one thing, expecting them to serve a millennial woman — she’s about 31 — is quite another.
When I asked Lim Jae-cheon, a Kim family expert at Korea University in Seoul, about Kim Yo Jong’s prospects a few years ago, he almost spat out his coffee. “She can’t be leader,” he said. “She’s a female.”
I can’t see how Kim Yo Jong could become the leader. But I also can’t see how she could not become the leader. There’s no one else.