On Monday, April 20, news agencies in the United States reported that North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, was in critical condition following surgery.
These reports were based on intelligence that the US government was monitoring Kim’s health closely, though both Chinese and South Korean officials have challenged the suggestion that Kim is ill.
Kim Jong Un has led North Korea ever since his father, Kim Jong Il, passed away in 2011. The Kim family has controlled North Korea since its formation following World War II. For decades, the country has maintained strict secrecy about what is happening within its borders.
Yet it is widely known that famine has ravished the population and its leaders have pursued the development of nuclear weapons.
Is Kim Jong Un critically ill?
Late on Monday night, CNN and Reuters were among the multiple news agencies reporting that Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un was gravely ill. These reports were based on US intelligence that was purportedly tracking the leader’s health after heart surgery.
The speculation about Kim Jong Un’s health began after he missed multiple public events, including the birthday celebration of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather and the founder of North Korea. Kim Jong Un’s last public appearance was on April 1.
However, there have been conflicting reports out of China and South Korea.
On Tuesday, April 20, Reuters reported that an official with the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, which deals directly with North Korea, said they did not have reason to believe that Kim was critically ill.
CNN has also similarly reported that South Korean officials stated “no unusual signs supporting reports about [Kim’s] health conditions have been detected.” The official also contradicted a South Korean newspaper that had reported that Kim was recovering from surgery.
Who is Kim Jong Un?
Kim Jong Un, born January 8, 1984, is one of six children born to Kim Jong Il, the man who led North Korea for nearly two decades. North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported that in October 2011, power was transferred to Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack in December of that year.
In the year prior to becoming the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un was designated a four-star general in the country’s military. It was his first official title as part of the nation’s government and an indication to observers that Kim would uphold his father’s militarization aims. Some had hoped he would focus more on the dire economic issues that had plagued the nation’s populace.
Little else is known about Kim due to North Korea’s infamously secretive government. What is known is often a result of information gleaned by South Korean intelligence. Kim is married to Ri Sol Ju, a fact known since 2012, though the date of the marriage is unknown. Likewise, the couple is believed to have three children but that is unconfirmed.
Like his father and grandfather, Kim is considered one of the world’s most repressive dictators. He oversees a nation where little information enters or leaves without his say and where people are punished severely for dissidence. Kim executed his own uncle, Jang Song Thaek, as a traitor for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.
In addition to being the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim is adorned with numerous other titles and honorifics. His official full title is Dear Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un, Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army.
The Kim dynasty
North Korea, which was founded as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1948, has always been led by a member of Kim’s family. Following World War II, the Korean peninsula was split by the USSR and the US along the 38th parallel north. This resulted in a communist government in the north and a non-communist government in the south.
The north was formed by Kim Il Sung, who fought alongside the Soviets in WWII. With Soviet support, Kim began the Korean War when his troops marched into South Korea in 1950 in an attempt to unify the peninsula under his control. The United States supported South Korea in a war that lasted until 1953. The war, which resulted in five million deaths, ended in a stalemate.
Kim Il Sung continued to lead the county after the war, first as the nation’s premier and then as president from 1972. On July 8, 1994, prior to what would have been a historic summit with South Korea, Kim Il Sung died. He was succeeded by his eldest son Kim Jong Il, who soon after established himself as eternal president of the republic.
As a leader, Kim Jong Il focused on building up his nation’s military strength. He adopted a policy known as “songeun,” which translates to “military first.” Under his leadership, North Korea suffered a terrible famine that reportedly resulted in two million dead. International organizations accused the leader of numerous human rights abuses.
If Kim Jong Un were to pass away, it isn’t clear who would succeed him as North Korea’s leaders. One possibility is his sister, Kim Yo Jong, who has been called “the most powerful woman in the country.”
The secrets of North Korea
North Korea is so successful at maintaining secrecy, US intelligence didn’t learn about the 2011 death of Kim Jong Il until 48 hours after the fact. Historically, that secrecy has been maintained by limiting who can come and go from the country. The country also has a powerful propaganda machine, which involves preventing access to the internet for most of its citizens.
This secrecy has at times confounded the efforts of international organizations to address human rights abuses and provide aid to citizens who have suffered from years of a severely limited food supply. Both Kim and his father have overseen famine and starvation in North Korea, but their focus has been on building up their military strength.
Specifically, Kim Jong Un has been developing his nation’s nuclear weaponry. Though satellite images and intelligence reports have tracked this development, North Korea has continually misled other governments about its willingness to denuclearize.
US President Donald Trump has made it a priority of his administration to negotiate a peace treaty with Kim that would necessitate that North Korea abandon its nuclear aims. The two have met in person and Trump has praised Kim’s leadership.
Yet, the negotiations have seemingly broken down for the time being, and the two leaders’ appearances together have been dismissed as “grandstanding photo-ops.”