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Are reports of Kim Jong-un’s illness greatly exaggerated?

Five theories about the health of the North Korean dictator

April 21, 2020

3:48 PM

21 April 2020

3:48 PM

Call the Kim Jong-undertaker? CNN issued an eyebrow-raising report last night that alleged the US is ‘monitoring intelligence that suggests North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, is in grave danger after undergoing a previous surgery’. This was swiftly contradicted by the South Korean government saying the dictator was ‘not seriously ill’.

The CNN story cites a single-source article from South Korean site Daily NK, which claims Kim ‘recently underwent heart surgery and continues to recuperate from the procedure at a villa outside of Pyongyang’.

‘The Daily NK source speculated that Kim’s heart surgery was due to a number of factors, including his obesity, prolific smoking habits, and “overwork”,’ the story continues.

Who has the right of it, then? Cockburn’s sources in the People’s Republic of Korea aren’t what they used to be, but why let knowing nothing get in the way of speculation? The experts don’t know anything either. So let’s run down the possibilities of the Little Rocket Man’s whereabouts.

He’s seriously ill

CNN may have got one right — stranger things have happened. After the report of Kim’s surgery emerged, various rumors spread across social media, from claims that he was in a coma to suggestions he was braindead. MSNBC anchor Katy Tur repeated the ‘braindead’ rumor, before swiftly deleting her tweet. We do know that the dictator didn’t attend ‘the Day of the Sun’ celebrations that commemorate his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s birthday on April 15. He has attended every year since assuming power in 2011. Perhaps he chose not to show due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. Or perhaps…he wasn’t able to.

He has COVID-19

There are much safer places to spend time than in North Korean hospital wards. Early claims that the PRK is ‘totally free’ of the virus have been described as lies by defectors. If Kim did spend time in surgery last week, it’s not inconceivable that he could have contracted COVID-19. In which case, you’d assume the chairman might be in quarantine, just like everyone else.

He’s dead

A classic theory in dictatorships: the Glorious Leader has taken a turn for the worse and traded in the cold winds of Pyongyang for the balmy fires of Hell. Fearing that the communist state would appear weak, his advisers are covering up Kim’s fate in order to guarantee a swift transition, presumably to the premiership of his sister Kim Yo-jong, who CNN loved so much during the 2018 Winter Olympics. Fidel Castro was rumored dead several times before he finally kicked the bucket in 2016. Could it be curtains for Chairman Kim?

He’s defecting

Is it time for a Korea change? Maybe like so many of his countrymen, Chairman Kim has decided to make a break for it and escape for a more hospitable nation than North Korea. Like…literally anywhere else. This scenario is perhaps the least likely: Kim is not the most inconspicuous dictator, and he doesn’t have many friends who’d be willing or able to hide him. Also, why would he leave?

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He’s watching basketball re-runs

Of course, the South Koreans are probably much more clued in than poor old Cockburn. According to Reuters:

‘Two South Korean government officials rejected an earlier CNN report citing an unnamed US official saying Washington was “monitoring intelligence” that Kim was in grave danger after surgery, but they did not elaborate on whether Kim had undergone surgery. The presidential Blue House said there were no unusual signs coming from North Korea.’

If Kim has had heart surgery, therefore, he may now be recuperating as normal. Chances are he caught that Michael Jordan documentary this weekend. By keeping shtum, the North Koreans get to embarrass the Western press more than they’ve embarrassed themselves already. Heart surgery can take a lot out of anyone, even if you’re not an obese 36-year-old smoker.

We won’t know for sure until we get a statement from North Korea of course. And even then we can’t be certain…

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