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Wang Son-taek is diplomatic correspondent for South Korea's YTN news network and one of the country's leading journalists on North Korea and diplomatic affairs.
The spotlight on Kim’s health was triggered by a CNN story on April 20 reporting the U.S. was monitoring intelligence suggesting the North Korean leader was in “grave danger” after supposedly undergoing surgery.
CNN likely based its piece on a story published by South Korea-based website Daily NK the same day, but it was following the American outlet’s story that the world was swept away by waves of wild speculation and fake information. One rumor that repeatedly came up was that Kim was dead or in a coma from his cardiovascular procedure.
The South Korean government did intervene, asserting that there had been “no unusual movements” in North Korea. But the wild storm of media speculation continued.
This contrasted with reporting in North Korean media during this time. Not a word was said to address reports on the Supreme Leader’s ill health or even death.
This year’s recent disappearance actually marks the third time when a North Korean leader’s health has been the target of international speculation.
In the summer of 2008, then-leader Kim Jong Il underwent surgery following a stroke. And in fall 2014, Kim Jong Un suffered from an ankle problem.
The North Korean media remained silent during these times as well. By comparing these three cases, we can learn how the North Korean media responds to international speculation concerning the Supreme Leader’s health.
During Kim’s absences, North Korea has been a peaceful island, surrounded by fake information and noisy speculation from outside
MAJOR EVENT NO-SHOWS
While the long absence of a Supreme Leader is not exceptional, these three cases are notable because they marked leadership no-shows at important events.
Kim Jong Il missed the 60th anniversary of the DPRK’s founding in September 2008. He actually probably had the stroke on August 14 or 15, and there was no news on his public activities from then, but international media did not notice this until his absence at the anniversary three weeks later. Rumors on Kim Jong Il’s health situation then erupted around the world.
2014’s speculation sparked following Kim Jong Un’s absences at the 66th anniversary of the country’s founding on September 9, the second meeting of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) on September 25, and the 69th Workers’ Party of Korea Foundation Day. It turned out he was suffering from an issue with his ankle.
This time round, the Chairman missed The Day of the Sun — the anniversary of the birth of the founder of the country and Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung. Kim’s conspicuous absence once again became a hot topic for the world media.
NOTHING TO SEE HERE
Even if world media gets itself into a frenzy over the North Korean leader’s whereabouts, the country’s media carries on as normal. During all three cases, North Korean media continued to report their usual kind of stories, sans those of the Supreme Leader’s public activity.
The people of North Korea went about their usual business as well. Construction projects carried on, military forces stayed put, and international festivals were held (with the exception of the 2020 case, of course, because of COVID-19).
When Kim Jong Il went missing in the summer of 2008, South Korean and U.S. spy agencies went about their intelligence gathering, while South Korean media remained silent until the foundation day no-show.
In the resulting spate of speculation, South Korean government officials anonymously told reporters that he was recovering after receiving surgery around three weeks prior.
But even after this news made headlines around the world, there was no unusual activity in North Korea.
The North Korean response in 2014 and 2020 was similar. The standard propaganda stories continued to air, and South Korean intelligence did not report any signs of trouble in the North despite Kim Jong Un missing multiple high-level events.
During Kim’s absences, North Korea has been a peaceful island, surrounded by fake information and noisy speculation from outside.
DEFENSIVE REACTION IN 2008
While not directly reacting to the noise from outside, North Korea cooly prepared indirect response measures.
After the international headlines about Kim Jong Il’s September 9 absence and his health issues, North Korean media reported that Kim Jong Il had sent a congratulatory letter to the Syrian president. This marked the first piece about Kim Jong Il’s activity since he disappeared from North Korean media on August 16.
North Korean officials then started to answer questions regarding the leader’s health from September 10 — the standard answer being that the rumors were groundless.
North Korean media also started to publish what Kim Jong Il said and did under his name. Contrasting this with the prior three-week silence, it’s safe to say that they only reported on Kim’s remarks or activities once they had received approval from the Dear Leader himself.
For example, North Korean media on October 2 reported that Kim Jong Il was making superhuman efforts for the country during the extremely hot Korean summer. The report was interpreted as an admittance of Kim’s ill health while prevising that he would soon be back.
On October 4, Kim Jong Il was reported as having watched a soccer game — the leader’s first public appearance in fifty-one days. However, there were still no photos of him.
There was a photo of Kim Jong Il published on October 11; however, it turned out the photo was taken in August. This implies that the North Korean media were under tremendous stress to respond to the negative stories abroad about their leader.
Finally, with a recent photo was published on November 2, the world acknowledged that he had not died and was still in control of the nation.
PASSIVE REACTION IN 2014
Before missing the anniversary that sparked 2014’s health rumors, Kim Jong Un was last seen watching a girl group concert on September 3. This September 9 absence wasn’t regarded as too notable because the anniversary did not mark a five- or ten-year milestone.
It was his non-attendance at the September 25 SPA when world media recognized that he had been gone for a relatively long period, and the speculation ensued.
In their response, North Korean media reacted in a minutely different way, publishing courtesy letters under Kim Jong Un’s name.
The high profile reshuffles at the SPA — such as Hwang Byung Seo’s promotion as a vice chairman to and Choe Ryong Hae and Jang Jeong Nam’s dismissal from the defense commission — helped to reinforce the image that Kim Jong Un was still in control of North Korea.
Sure enough, the North Korean leader reappeared on the front page of the Rodong Sinmun on October 14 with a broad smile. It was as if his expression was saying to the world, “I am alive and well, and the rumors were all wrong.”
RELAXED REACTION IN 2020
The Supreme Leader’s most recent disappearance was picked up by international media much earlier than the other cases.
He was last seen in state media on April 12 chairing a ruling party Politburo meeting on April 11. North Korea watchers started to pay attention to Kim’s absence following his April 15 Day of the Sun no-show, especially notable since he had never once missed the event since becoming Supreme Leader in 2011.
Following the April 20 CNN story and the subsequent rumor mill, North Korea did as they had done in 2014 by publishing Kim Jong Un’s diplomatic letters and expressions of gratitude to the North Korean people.
When photos of Kim reemerged in state media on May 2, at the opening ceremony of a fertilizer factory, the Rodong Sinmun published a report double if not triple the size of similar events in the past.
Korean Central Television (KCTV) also aired a fifteen-minute broadcast on the occasion, contrasting with the usual length for this kind of story of around five minutes.
Maybe North Korea had debated how to counter excessive speculation in South Korea and beyond, and had decided to counter it with a dramatic reappearance from the Chairman.
DIFFERENCES AND SIMILARITIES
In 2008, 2014, and 2020, North Korean media reacted to international speculation concerning the leader’s disappearance in almost identical fashion. This is despite the first case being due to a real and serious health problem, the second case being due to a minor ankle issue, and the third case lacking confirmation of any meaningful issue.
North Korean media likely remained calm and did not respond to the rumors because they feared such talk could spread within North Korea. They may even have emergency guidelines instructing regular coverage and not to discuss the leader’s health and safety.
One of the interesting small differences in state media’s reaction to each case are the letters and messages of gratitude from the Supreme Leader.
Such remarks were only attributed to Kim Jong Il after he was known to have woken up from his coma, and when Kim Jong Un, only suffering from ankle troubles in 2014, could give the order.
State media does, however, admit that their leaders are suffering from health issues if it really is the case. On October 2, 2008, an emotional essay was made urging the people to remember Kim Jong Il’s hard work. In 2014, a similar article detailed Kim Jong Un’s efforts in spite of the discomfort he was then undergoing.
Yet they did not say anything regarding Kim’s health this time in 2020. Based on this, we can assume there may really have been no significant health problems and the wild speculation was just that.
Let’s hope that, if the North Korean leader does go missing again in the future, we can learn from precedent and do a little better in our assessment of the situation.
Edited by James Fretwell
The spotlight on Kim's health was triggered by a CNN story on April 20 reporting the U.S. was monitoring intelligence suggesting the North Korean leader was in "grave danger" after supposedly undergoing surgery.