Editor's Note: This is part of a symposium asking what happens if Kim Jong-un died. To read the other parts of the series click here.
Is Kim Jong-un dead? While there are lots of reports claiming lots of things, here is what we can gather, at least for now:
The reports so far, are thinly-sourced so far. There does appear to be more than one source from which the claims originate. The reports of Kim’s demise have been coming from sources in Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Most are third-hand. As with many news reports coming out of North Korea, they are shrouded in haze and uncertainty.
Here’s what has already been reported by media around the world:
First, South Korean politician, commentator, and sometimes scholar Chang Seong-min alerted the press that one of his sources in the Chinese Communist Party told him that Kim was “virtually dead.” South Korea’s Monthly Choson reported Chang’s claims on April 23, Korea time.
Chang, who has served as an official in the administration of President Kim Dae-jung from 1998-99, hosted television shows, written 11 books and reports on foreign policy, and served on the board of an international forum, received a phone call from one of his sources in China. The source told him Kim was in a coma and it was impossible to revive him. North Korean senior officials were said to have concluded he was as good as dead.
The anonymous Chinese source also reportedly said the United States and South Korea did not have good information, so Chang decided he must tell the public.
Now, there are reasons Chang isn’t the best source. His story about why he agreed to an interview seems just a bit self-serving and grandiose. He has pushed half-backed stories about North Korea in the past, such as the claim that North Korean agents were involved in the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, protests against the Chun military regime that the South Korean military suppressed. His career in politics is checkered: after his one year with the Kim administration, he was elected to the National Assembly in a district in from Seoul in 2000 but removed in 2002 because of election law violations. In 2017, he ran for president and received 0.01% of the vote.
Second, Hong Kong Satellite Television, a network with operations in both Hong Kong and mainland China that was founded in 2008, was cited as reporting Kim’s death, after it was widely reported that China dispatched doctors to North Korea. HKS deputy director Qin Feng posted to Weibo, China’s microblog, on the night of April 24, “Some people are willing to wait for official announcement. Help yourself. I’m just speaking the truth.” She went on to cite the delay from North Korea in officially announcing Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011.
This report has been one of the most widely-spread cited in Western media, including by TMZ. On April 25, China time, HKS ran a segment titled, “Why does Kim Jong-un’s health condition create international debate?” in which an anlayst, Liu Zijun, said of young social media users, “They don’t come from a point of view about international relations and analyze that much. They think, as long as it’s fun, it’s good.”
HKS is a young network without a long track record, and the extent to which Qin’s statement on her personal Weibo account were based on knowledge versus speculation was not clear from her words.
Third, Japanese reporter Daisuke Kondo, writing for the magazine Shukan Gendai, reports that one of the members of the Chinese team sent to North Korea told him the whole story of Kim’s medical emergency. Korean news website Daum published a summary of the story in Korean at 5:18 pm, Korea time, on April 25 (4:18 am US EST). According to the account, Kim had to have a stent inserted into his artery, but the doctor in charge was “nervous” and took ten minutes to complete the procedure. The delay caused Kim to collapse into a vegetative state.
The reporter, Daisuke Kondo, has worked in China and studied at Peking University from 1995 to 96. In the early 2010’s, he lived full-time in Beijing and attempted to “assimilate” himself into Chinese society. He has also lectured on East Asian theory at Meiji University, and he has authored eighteen books and reports, mostly about China, Japan, and North Korea, since 2012.
His account does seem to have the same red herring as Chang’s account: the story he tells contains too many narrative details, even the thinking of the doctor working on Kim, and a convenient omniscient Chinese Communist Party source.
Finally, it is reported credibly that U.S. intelligence is “monitoring” Kim’s state, and there’s no reason to doubt that. But what does intelligence know, and what is their assessment of Kim’s health? Some political activists in DC circles are saying intelligence thinks Kim is dead or incapacitated. Again, there is no way to analyze the original claims for this talk.
Kim Jong-un may be dead, he may be on the brink of death, or he may still be recovering from surgery. Whatever the case, with his unhealthy lifestyle, it would not be surprising if he passes away at a younger age than his predecessors.
Mitchell Blatt is a former editorial assistant at the National Interest, Chinese-English translator, and lead author of Panda Guides Hong Kong. He has been published in USA Today, The Daily Beast, The Korea Times, Silkwinds magazine, and Areo Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him on Facebook at @MitchBlattWriter.