Kim Jong Un may have missed a key holiday on April 15 over coronavirus concerns, not because he is ill, South Korea’s minister for North Korean affairs has said.
North Korean leader Kim’s absence from public ceremonies on the birth anniversary of his grandfather and founder of the country, Kim Il Sung, was unprecedented, and he has not been seen in public since. That has led to days of speculation over his health.
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South Korean officials emphasise they have detected no unusual movements in North Korea and have cautioned against reports that Kim may be ill.
North Korea has said it has no confirmed cases of the coronavirus, but given the fact the country has taken stringent steps to head off an outbreak, Kim’s absence from the ceremonies is not particularly unusual, Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who oversees North Korea engagement, told legislators on Tuesday.
“It is true that he had never missed the anniversary for Kim Il Sun’sbirthday since he took power, but many anniversary events including celebrations and a banquet had been cancelled because of coronavirus concerns,” he said.
There were at least two instances since mid-January where Kim was out of sight for nearly 20 days. “I don’t think that’s particularly unusual given the current [coronavirus] situation.”
US President Donald Trump said on Monday he has “a good idea” how Kim is doing and hopes he is fine, but would not elaborate.
“I do know how he’s doing, relatively speaking,” Trump told reporters on Monday.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he was aware of reports on Kim’s health and was paying close attention to developments.
North Korea has cancelled some big events and imposed a border lockdown and quarantine measures in an effort to prevent an outbreak of the coronavirus.
But if Kim is hiding out because of fears surrounding COVID-19 it would “puncture a hole in the state media narrative of how this crisis has been perfectly managed”, said Chad O’Carroll, CEO of Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.
“If he is merely trying to avoid infection, it should theoretically be very easy to release photos or videos of a healthy-looking Kim,” he said.
Signs of life
An authoritative source familiar with the US intelligence reporting said on Monday it was entirely possible Kim disappeared from public view to avoid exposure to COVID-19, and the sighting of his presidential train in the coastal resort area of Wonsan did suggest he may be there, or was there recently.
But the source said since there was no authoritative backing for such a conclusion, US agencies were also still considering the possibility Kim might be ill, even seriously.
38 North, a Washington, DC-based North Korea monitoring project, said on Saturday satellite images from last week showed a special train that was probably Kim’s at Wonsan, lending weight to reports he had been spending time in the resort area.
While North Korean state media have not reported on Kim’s whereabouts since he presided over a meeting on April 11, they have carried near-daily reports of him sending letters and diplomatic messages suggesting he is still carrying out his duties as the leader.
“I agree with the South Korean government’s assessment that there is no reason to think Kim Jong Un is not performing his duties,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former North Korea open-source intelligence analyst for the US government.
“That said, I would not read too much into letters signed by Kim Jong Un. I would guess that most of them are not written by him anyway.”
North Korea’s Kim testing limits of diplomacy as sanctions bite |NationalTribune.com
In February 2018, Kim Yo Jong was the friendly face of North Korea, smiling and waving as she joined the crowds in South Korea at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The two Koreas had entered the stadium together at the opening ceremony and fielded a joint women’s ice hockey team. Kim was not only the…
In February 2018, Kim Yo Jong was the friendly face of North Korea, smiling and waving as she joined the crowds in South Korea at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
The two Koreas had entered the stadium together at the opening ceremony and fielded a joint women’s ice hockey team. Kim was not only the first member of the North’s ruling family to visit the South, but also shook President Moon Jae-in’s hand. Relations were set to improve.
This month, however, it was Kim, the younger sister of the country’s leader Kim Jong Un, who was repeatedly cited in bellicose warnings directed at South Korea, apparently over the leaflets floated across the border or along the river by defector groups, but really about the North’s increasing frustration about Seoul’s inability to deliver on cooperation promises or convince the United States to ease crippling economic sanctions.
The events were a “manufactured crisis”, said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a reader in international relations at King’s College London and an expert on the two Korean Peninsula.
On Wednesday, the eve of the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War, state media reported that Kim Jong Un had instead decided to suspend the military actions his sister had threatened.
“North Korea feels that it hasn’t received the concessions it was looking for from South Korea and the United States at the summits over the past few years,” Pacheco Pardo told Al Jazeera. “The heightening of tensions is to signal displeasure at what has happened and that something different is needed.”
State media reported, Kim’s step back reflected an analysis of “prevailing conditions”.
North and South have been stuck in an uneasy truce since 1953 when an armistice brought an end to the fighting in which millions of civilians had died and militaries on all sides had suffered heavy casualties. A peace treaty has never been formalised, and in recent decades, Pyongyang has lurched between engagement, isolation and the kind of headline-grabbing act exemplified by its decision to blow up the joint liaison office in Kaesong.
That move – a week after Pyongyang said it had severed all communication links with Seoul – effectively signalled the end of the Panmunjon Declaration and the latest round of engagement which had begun in 2018 under Moon.
It was “an attempt to make a clean break with the Moon administration,” noted a commentary in 38 North, a website devoted to the analysis of North Korea from the Stimson Center in Washington, DC.
The heightened rhetoric followed a series of missile tests last year after the second summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump broke down over sanctions relief, and a later attempt to revive denuclearisation talks foundered. Kim had set a yearend deadline for the US to shift its stance.
North Korea grabbed world attention when it blew up the joint liaison office it set up with South Korea in the border town of Kaesong last week [KCNA via Reuters]
In targeting Seoul, and dismissing Moon’s offer of envoys, Pyongyang might have been hoping that the president, who has made inter-Korean cooperation a cornerstone of his administration, would lean on the US to ease some of the sanctions imposed as a result of the North’s nuclear testing.
Instead, the South responded more forcefully than usual, saying that by criticising Moon, Kim had “fundamentally damaged the trust between the two leaders”. The unification minister resigned.
Jay Song, an academic at the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne, says the internal politics in the South also requires scrutiny, and notes that the Unification Ministry cannot do anything without a green light from the National Security Council in the presidential Blue House.
“The National Security Council are internationalists [and] prioritise the Republic of Korea-US alliance over the Unification Ministry’s ethno-nationalist mandate on improving inter-Korean relations,” said Song, who is the Korea Foundation senior lecturer in Korean Studies. “The choice for South Korea is not an easy one, especially when the North wants to be a nuclear state.”
South Korea has struggled with how to deal with its northern neighbour since the end of Japanese colonisation led to the partition of the Korean Peninsula between the Soviet Union-backed North and the US-backed South.
Pyongyang, which has long dismissed Seoul as a “puppet” of the US, sent its troops across the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950, in a move that led to UN intervention, the mobilisation of US and Commonwealth forces, and brought in Chinese troops fighting in support of the North Koreans.
China was worried then, as it is now, about maintaining a buffer state, while the US continues to station some 28,500 troops in the South. The Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between the two countries remains one of the world’s most heavily-fortified frontiers, despite calming measures that were part of the 2018 agreement.
United Nations forces hold their ears while firing mortars at Communist positions on the Naktong River front in South Korea, in August 1950. The Korean War began on June 25, 1950 when North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel into the South [File: AP Photo/Max Desfor]
Under the deal, the two sides agreed to remove soldiers from some border areas, withdraw loudspeakers used to broadcast propaganda messages from North to South – moves Pyongyang this month said it would reverse – and curb the activities of defectors and activists floating balloons of propaganda leaflets from South to North.
Amid the escalation, South Korea again promised legal action to put an end to the leafleting, but the sanctions make it difficult for Moon to deliver on the economic initiatives envisaged in 2018 without the backing of the US.
Even before Kim’s move to step back from provocations, analysts noted that while the posturing was helping Kim Yo Jong burnish her credentials for leadership in a patriarchal and militarised regime, the decision to map out its planned steps suggested some flexibility – an opportunity for her brother to “refrain from directly engaging in hostilities in order not to exhaust the chance that he could still meet with President Moon and President Trump to make a deal in the future”, said Lami Kim, a professor of Asian Studies at the US Army War College.
“The wording of the announcement, certainly in Korean, makes clear that this is a temporary decision,” KCL’s Pacheco Pardo observed. “So the announcement leaves the door open for further de-escalation, but also for re-escalation.”
After the heady days of the Singapore and Hanoi Summits, Trump now seems to have lost interest in North Korea, focused instead on shoring up his own position in a bruising battle for re-election in November amid the world’s worst coronavirus outbreak and public anger over police brutality and systemic racism.
Even during the Singapore summit, if former national security adviser John Bolton is to be believed, Trump’s focus was merely on the optics, wanting to know how many journalists were expected to attend the final news conference.
“That’s what he was focused on,” Bolton said in an interview with ABC News on Sunday. “That he had this enormous photo opportunity – first time an American president has met with the leader of North Korea.”
Kim and Trump leave their historic summit in Singapore, after signing documents that acknowledged the progress of the talks and pledged to keep the momentum going. Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton says the president was preoccupied with the optics of the event [File: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]
“Like many other countries around the world, North Korea has probably realised that this president is not going to deliver,” said Pacheco Pardo. “But they don’t want to completely break with the US.”
China remains North Korea’s biggest ally and satellite images shared by the Stimson Center suggest trade may have resumed at the border, after months of closure as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The outbreak of COVID-19 suspended tourism and trade with China, taking the country’s economy close to a breaking point,” said the US Army War College’s Kim. “It is still too early to give up on diplomacy, not because KJU is a trustworthy leader, but because the dire economic situation in North Korea make economic inducements highly appealing.”
In Pyongyang, the regime feels it has made sufficient concessions – taking steps to destroy its nuclear facility in Yongbyon and returning the remains of soldiers who were killed during the war – to deserve some concessions.
Some 147 sets of remains arrived back in Seoul from Hawaii on Wednesday, some of which were discovered as a result of the 2018 initiative, but if the South had hoped the two-year-old detente was a sign that the cycle of provocation and engagement had been consigned to the past, the events of the past few weeks have shown there is still a long way to go.
N Korea’s Kim in major reshuffle as country steps up virus fight
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has carried out a major reshuffle of his State Affairs Commission, official media reported on Monday, replacing more than a third of its members. Kim has cemented his grip over the country since coming to power in 2011 and is chairman of the SAC – the North’s highest decision-making…
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has carried out a major reshuffle of his State Affairs Commission, official media reported on Monday, replacing more than a third of its members.
Kim has cemented his grip over the country since coming to power in 2011 and is chairman of the SAC – the North’s highest decision-making body.
‘Cosplay democracy’: North Korea’s assembly holds rare meeting
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North Korea insists it is free of coronavirus
At a rare meeting of the country’s Supreme People’s Assembly on Sunday, five of the SAC’s 13 other members were replaced, official news agency KCNA reported.
The rubber-stamp parliament met a day after Kim presided over a governing party politburo meeting where he called for strict measures to prevent an outbreak of the new coronavirus.
A cabinet report submitted to the assembly reiterated the North’s insistence that “not a single case” of coronavirus has been reported in the country.
“State emergency anti-epidemic campaign will continue to be intensified to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the cabinet report said.
Photos released by state news agency KCNA on Monday showed hundreds of legislators sitting in close proximity to each other with no masks or other visible measures to protect themselves from the disease.
There was no mention on KCNA of Kim presiding over the meeting himself, and he did not appear in photos of it.
North Korea has said it has tested at least 700 people and has put more than 500 in quarantine, but has no confirmed case of the new coronavirus, the World Health Organization (WHO) told Reuters news agency last week.
“The state emergency anti-epidemic campaign will continue to be intensified to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with a priority given to the life and safety of the people,” said a report submitted to the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), according to the KCNA.
North Korea took swift steps to prevent the spread of the virus, including blocking nearly all travel with neighbouring China and Russia, suspending international tourism and imposing long quarantines on thousands of people, including foreign diplomats.
The supreme assembly meets once a year to adopt the state budget and to exercise its constitutional mandate to approve key appointments and legal amendments, though Kim holds near-absolute power in the country. Personnel changes also take place during the meeting.
Ri Son Gwon, a former defence commander who was promoted to foreign affairs minister earlier this year, was one of the newly appointed as members of the Cabinet and the SAC in the assembly.
His predecessor, career diplomat Ri Yong Ho, was removed. Another former foreign minister, Ri Su Yong, was also taken off the committee.
The SPA was initially scheduled for Friday, but was postponed without explanation.
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