Is Kim Jong Un Dead or Alive?

Unconfirmed reports of the Supreme Leader’s untimely demise threaten to upend North Korea’s dictatorship. With no succession plan in place, what happens if Kim dies?

North Korea has no freedom of the press and information leaks from the country are few and far between. Recently, unconfirmed reports from various sources claim that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is dead or in a vegetative state. Other sources claim that information is false; President Trump said the report was “incorrect,” and the presidential office in Seoul, South Korea said there were no signs indicating that Kim Jong Un was gravely ill.

What we know about Kim’s health

Kim took power in December of 2011 after the passing of his father, Kim Jong Il. His health problems began around 2014. In September of that year he disappeared for over a month and then reappeared with a cane. Kim was rumored to be suffering from gout. His recent health problems are thought to be from his smoking habit, obesity, and “overwork.”

Timeline of recent events

  • Kim Jong Un reportedly underwent heart surgery on April 12th.

  • His health began to come into question on April 15th when he failed to take part in a ceremony honoring his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. This is believed to be the first time Kim has missed the ceremony since he took power in 2011. It is possible that Kim skipped out on the ceremony because of coronavirus concerns.

  • On Thursday, April 23rd, a former South Korean politician alerted the press that one of his sources in China told him that Kim was “virtually dead.” The source told him that Kim was in a coma and it was impossible to revive the dictator.

  • Japanese weekly magazine Shukan Gendai reported on Friday, April 24th, that Kim Jong Un was in a vegetative state following his heart surgery. A source told the magazine that Kim clutched his chest and fell to the ground on a visit to the North Korean countryside earlier in April. Kim was then hospitalized and needed a stent procedure. The procedure reportedly did not go well and put Kim in “grave danger.”

  • On Friday night, Hong Kong Satellite Television deputy director Qin Fend posted that Kim was dead on Weibo. TMZ reported that she is the niece of a Chinese foreign minister, and she claimed to have a “very solid source” about Kim’s death.

  • On Sunday, April 26th, a foreign policy advisor to South Korean president Moon Jae-in said that “Kim Jong Un is alive and well.” They added that “no suspicious movements have so far been detected.”

  • On Tuesday, April 28th, NK Pro wrote about satellite imagery analysis that shows Kim Jong Un and his luxury boats may be at the beach in Wonsan. A boat that may have been used by Kim disappeared from nearby Tae island only once in the past month, on April 14th. Some speculate that Kim may have been injured or incapacitated while overseeing a cruise missile test on the same day. Kim Jong Un’s personal train has also been spotted on satellite imagery, but none of these sightings can be considered proof of Kim’s presence, much less health.

The death of his father and grandfather

Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung were both older when they passed away. Kim Il Sung died in 1994 at the age of 82, and a succession plan was in place when he passed. Kim Jong Il took over in 1994 and remained Supreme Leader until his death in late 2011 at age 70. In 2011, there was a succession plan in place for Kim Jong Un, believed to be age 27 at the time, to take the reins. 

What is the succession plan for Kim Jong Un?

Kim Jong Un is young; his birth year is unknown, but he is believed to be either 36 or 37. There is no clear successor in place. Kim likely has a son, but he is only a toddler. Other male relatives that could possibly assume the position of Supreme Leader have no profile inside North Korea. Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, is the only obvious candidate to replace Kim Jong Un. She’s taken on a more prominent role in the country, accompanying her brother to summits and issuing statements. 

If she does succeed Kim Jong Un, she may only be in place as leader temporarily until Kim’s son comes of age. The culture and traditions of North and South Korea value leaders who are older and male. Kim’s sister, age 32, may face resistance to becoming Supreme Leader. It is likely some of the higher-ranking more traditional North Koreans would be extremely hesitant to serve a young, female leader. However, there is no other obvious choice for Kim Jong Un’s successor.

Will North Korea drastically change?

Kim Jong Un and his father were both groomed to take over when their elder passed away. If Kim Jong Un is dead, his death will come as a shock to North Koreans (and the rest of the world, for that matter). He does have several health issues, but he is only in his 30s. By all accounts, North Korea did not have a succession plan in place. 

No matter who takes over as Supreme Leader, there will likely be changes. The most obvious candidate to replace Kim Jong Un, his sister, is likely to face resistance to becoming dictator. If someone from outside the family became Supreme Leader, it’s possible North Korea could remain relatively stable, but that would upend decades of family rule. Whoever becomes the next dictator of North Korea is likely to face resistance, and it’s unclear at this time what changes may be instituted by the next regime or what sort of turmoil resistance to their leadership could cause.

If Kim Jong Un is dead, we may not hear about it from North Korea immediately. Information coming from North Korea is scant, and reports of Kim’s demise remain unconfirmed by nearly every reputable news outlet. Speculation runs rampant, but it could all turn out to be wrong; when Kim disappeared in 2014, there were also reports of his death. Japanese and South Korean newspapers falsely reported the death of Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, and his father, Kim Jong Il, more than once.

It is possible that Kim is only out of the public eye due to the coronavirus pandemic. If that is the case, it could be months before we know whether or not Kim is still alive. If Kim Jong Un has unexpectedly died, we could see significant changes to the North Korean regime that would further add to the global chaos we are all currently experiencing.

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