It was November 17, 1986, and the headline appeared on the New York Times front page, just above the fold: “Kim Il Sung, at 74, Is Reported Dead.” But Kim, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, was alive, and would rule for nearly another eight years before passing on. His son and political successor, Kim Jong Il, got the reverse treatment on December 19, 2011, when North Korean state media announced that Jong Il had died. In fact, he had actually passed away two days earlier; the outside world had no clue.
The health of the mercurial Kims has long been a subject of fascination and intrigue outside North Korea. This week, Kim Il Sung’s grandson, Kim Jong Un, joined in the family tradition as rumors swirled that the portly dictator had expired suddenly during a cardiovascular procedure—a supernova of speculation that appears to have begun with a single-sourced report saying Kim was recovering from heart surgery.
If you’ve read this far looking for an answer on how Kim Jong Un is doing, I’m sorry to disappoint; reliable evidence remains scant. Of all the carefully protected details about North Korea’s supreme leadership, or suryong, their personal health is one of the most tightly controlled. But we can reason from precedent to some extent: The circumstances of Kim Il Sung’s and Kim Jong Il’s deaths—and how they were handled by the state information apparatus in North Korea—suggest that Kim Jong Un remains alive. That doesn’t rule out the notion that he may still be recovering from a surgery or incapacitated in some way, but it does suggest that Americans should be concerned about what comes after Kim.
Despite North Korea’s reputation for overwhelming secrecy, the deaths of the previous Kims were reported immediately in the case of the first and with a delay of about 48 hours in the case of the second. South Korean and American intelligence first learned of Kim Jong Il’s death when the North Koreans told the world, which should temper any impulse to trust initial reports from state intelligence agencies on Kim Jong Un’s health.
If Kim isn’t dead but incapacitated or otherwise ill, there’s a precedent for that, too—not an especially encouraging one: his father’s 2008 stroke. The North Korean government tried to keep Kim Jong Il’s affliction from leaking to the outside world; since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kim had been especially paranoid about the United States using a moment of perceived weakness in North Korea to invade—hence the secrecy. But efforts to keep Kim’s stroke under wraps failed, in part due to his reliance on a French doctor, Francois-Xavier Roux, to treat him. Roux eventually confirmed that bouts of concerning absences on Kim’s part in 2008—including at a highly significant military parade to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of North Korea’s founding—were likely due to his stroke, suffered that August.
Accounts of Kim’s well-being got particularly strange around this time. One Japanese “expert” on North Korea went as far as to claim that Kim Jong Il had been dead of diabetes since 2003, and his role had been played for the ensuing half-decade by a series of closely guarded body doubles.
With the Covid–19 pandemic, North Korea has been on total lockdown, and researchers have been unable to pinpoint any secret flights into the country that might have carried foreign doctors to treat the leader. If Kim did fall ill, he may have done so suddenly and needed urgent treatment. He was seen in public on April 11; it was his absence from the public eye four days later—the most important day in the North Korean calendar, his grandfather’s birthday—that started to raise eyebrows. He’d also missed attending a cruise-missile launch the evening before, an unusual but not unprecedented development.
Still, even as rumors have swirled in recent days, state media has reported on Kim’s dictatorial activities as it normally does. On April 20, Kim reportedly sent “a congratulatory message to Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel Bermudez, president of the Republic of Cuba.” On Tuesday, Kim was said to have sent “birthday spreads to persons of merit” in North Korea. He remains unseen in any images or videos.
After Trump claimed during an April 18 press briefing that he had received a “nice note” from Kim during a press briefing on Saturday, the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs fired back in a statement sharply denying that Kim had sent any notes since the two leaders had corresponded last in March. The statement also included a warning that the Trump-Kim relationship shouldn’t be exploited for political points. Even in North Korea’s stovepiped bureaucracy, it’s unlikely that the foreign ministry would make a statement tweaking Trump so directly. Kim may be resting, but he may still be signing off on orders.
Few images of totalitarianism are as powerful as the vision of a regime trying to conceal the demise of its cherished leader. Interestingly, the North Korean government has more practice attempting the opposite: That premature 1986 report of Kim Il Sung’s death actually originated with North Korea’s army, which blasted news of the death through loudspeakers in the Demilitarized Zone. That may have been a way for Pyongyang to game out how the U.S. and South Korean militaries would react to the leader’s sudden death. But there’s no particular reason to believe that North Korea is actively pulling a Weekend at Bernie’s now, as it reports Kim Jong Un’s mundane correspondence with other global leaders.
I expect the world to learn of Kim’s health when North Korea deems it fit to make an announcement, and not before. If he were to die, the precedents suggest a quick notification. This might be complicated in the current case, given the lack of an obvious male successor to continue North Korea’s mythologized “Paektu bloodline.” But Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, appears to be one of his most trusted confidants and has risen quickly in the Korean Workers’ Party. Jo Yong’s selection as a new leader might be complicated in the DPRK’s highly patriarchal culture, but her status as a descendant of the founder would likely prevail.
That might be the best-case scenario in terms of international stability, if not for the North Korean people, in a post–Kim Jong Un world. “I hope he’s doing just fine,” Trump has said of Kim amid the health rumors, but of course there will be many Westerners—even in Trump’s Republican Party—who hope that the human-rights-abusing, nuclear-threatening hereditary tyrant is dead. The nature of Kim’s regime is not in dispute here, but it’s best to be careful what one wishes for. Kim presides over a small nuclear empire. Even if the chances are very remote, an internal power struggle following his demise might be catastrophic. The monolith of the North Korean state manifests in Kim’s person; his health is undeniably brittle, and so, too, is his regime. As a result, we should be prepared for the worst.