Speculation about the status of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was further fueled on Wednesday by the publication of satellite photos that showed luxury boats flitting around Kim’s coastal villa, where his personal train has been parked for days.
The activity suggests Kim is alive, prompting analysts in the U.S. and South Korea to wonder if he dropped out of sight to hide from the coronavirus pandemic.
Rumors of the dictator’s illness or demise began bubbling after Kim failed to appear at a major annual celebration of his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s birthday. CNN quoted sources this week who said Kim was “in grave danger after a surgery,” kicking off a frenzy of media speculation about his possible death and the odds that his sister Kim Yo-jong would succeed him to become North Korea’s first female tyrant.
South Korean officials publicly insisted they had no reason to believe Kim was dead and satellite photos soon emerged of his distinctive luxury train sitting at his private station in Wonsan, a coastal resort favored by the ruling family. New sources emerged with a theory that one of Kim’s bodyguards tested positive for the Wuhan coronavirus, sending the portly young ruler into hiding because he feared for his health, and because the official line from the regime is that absolutely no one in North Korea has contracted the virus.
Reuters on Wednesday said the latest satellite photos show “boats often used by Kim had made movements in patterns that suggested he or his entourage may be in the Wonsan area.”
“Officials in South Korea and the United States say it is plausible Kim may be staying there, possibly to avoid exposure to the new coronavirus, and have expressed scepticism of media reports he had some kind of serious illness. They caution, however, that Kim’s health and location are closely guarded secrets and reliable information is difficult to obtain in North Korea,” Reuters added.
The report noted that Wonsan appears to be one of Kim’s favorite houses, it might be where he was born, it has historic significance to the regime as the beachhead for the Communist invasion and conquest of North Korea, and it has numerous amenities that make it an ideal headquarters, including speedy rail and automobile access to the capital in Pyongyang. There is even a special highway connecting Pyongyang and Wonsan that only the ruling family is allowed to use.
Wonsan also figures prominently in Kim’s currently stalled plans to renovate North Korea for commerce and tourism with the outside world, which would make it an unlikely choice of secret hideouts to stash his corpse if the regime wanted to conceal his death for as long as possible.
South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul suggested Kim Jong-un decided to skip the anniversary celebration of his grandfather’s birth because of the coronavirus pandemic, but since the regime does not want to admit it has a pandemic, the dictator decided to disappear without explanation.
The New York Post on Wednesday relayed an article from the North Korea-watchers at NK News about an alleged “faux news report,” made to look like a broadcast from North Korean state media, that claimed Kim dropped dead during an inspection on Saturday. A doctored photo that purportedly shows Kim lying in a coffin has also allegedly circulated on social media.
The Post claimed the regime in Pyongyang professed itself “bewildered” by these efforts to spread false news about Kim’s death and ominously vowed to find those responsible, a threat disturbing enough to reduce international telephone calls, text messages, and Internet traffic from North Koreans. North Korean state media and the Foreign Ministry have not made any official statements regarding the rumors.
The New York Post ran another article suggesting that the attention focused on Kim Yo-jong as the first female dictator-in-waiting could be completely off base, because even in Kim Jong-un dies or becomes incapacitated, his successor could be his 65-year-old uncle Kim Pyong-il, the last living son of Kim Il-sung.
Kim Pyong-il was bypassed when the throne passed from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, but the uncle went on to have a very active career as a diplomat before getting sidelined (and placed under house arrest) by a nervous Kim Jong-Il in 2011.
Pyong-Il is considerably less dead than Kim Jong-un’s other male relatives, and he bears a strong resemblance to the revered Kim Il-sung, so some analysts believe he could make a comeback as a more plausible and stable heir to the throne than young, female Kim Yo-jong. As International Business Times noted Wednesday, the fact that anyone in Pyongyang feels comfortable discussing the long-disfavored Pyong-il as the next dictator implies there is strong resistance to having a female leader.