In Depth

Is North Korea’s Kim Jong Un seriously ill?

South Korea casts doubt on claims about neighbouring leader’s health

Reports that North Korea’s leader is seriously ill cannot be confirmed, South Korean officials have said. 

Responding to rumours that Kim Jong Un has undergone critical heart surgery, the presidential office in Seoul claims to have received no intelligence to suggest that the 36-year-old is “gravely ill”.

A spokesperson for President Moon Jae-in said the South “has so far detected no special signs inside North Korea” - a stock phrase used to cast doubt on unsubstantiated news reports about the neighbouring nation.

How did the rumours begin?

The claims can be traced back to Daily NK, a Seoul-based website that reports on North Korea using anonymous sources from within the hermit kingdom. The site published a story late on Monday that said Kim had undergone heart surgery at Hyangsan Hospital, a clinic dedicated to treating North Korea’s ruling family, on 12 April.

The report followed a flurry of speculation over Kim’s absence from national celebrations on 15 April to mark his grandfather’s birthday.

“This is one of the biggest events of the year, marking the birth of the nation’s founder,” reports the BBC. “Kim Jong Un has never missed it - and it seemed very unlikely that he would simply choose not to turn up.”

The Daily NK article was picked up by international news outlets, with the rumours further fuelled by claims that multiple sources have reportedly told CNN that US intelligence was “closely monitoring reports on Kim’s health”.

Is there any truth to the claims?

Daily NK issued a correction on Tuesday morning that said: “A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to multiple sources for this story; this article is based on a single Daily NK source in North Korea.”

Combined with statements by both the South Korean government and Chinese intelligence officials dismissing the health claims, the climbdown indicates there is little factual basis to the initial report.

However, the BBC points out that “it is very much worth noting that at no point has anyone denied that Kim Jong Un has had heart surgery... South Korea and China merely deny that the North Korean leader is seriously ill.”

What is North Korea’s succession plan?

Kim was groomed by his father, Kim Jong Il, to lead the country, but is not believed to have any confirmed successor himself.

The most obvious candidate is his younger sister, Kim Yo Yong, who hails from the sacred “Paektu bloodline” of the Kim dynasty and who has become an increasingly visible presence in North Korea in recent years.

“Kim Yo Jong has become the single most important figure in the North Korean regime after her brother,” says The Guardian. “She is rumoured to be the brains behind Kim’s carefully constructed public image, at home and abroad. In return, she enjoys the absolute confidence of her brother.”

CNN reports that US intelligence officials have been reaching out to North Korean experts, “particularly those who have studied the Kim regime”, to talk about contingency planning for the event of his death.

His sister is on the radar of US officials, who in 2017 placed her and other North Korean officials on a blacklist for “severe human rights abuses”.

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