It’s possible that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, was temporarily removed from his position as the head of state of his country of 24.9 million during his 40-day absence from public view, which ended this week when North Korea’s news agency released photographs showing Kim on a ‘field guidance’ trip to a new residential complex.
It’s possible that Kim was never more than a figurehead, with the real power lying inside the secretive Organization and Guidance Department and with the North Korean military forces.
It’s possible, as Zachery Keck writes today in The Diplomat, that this entire saga shows that North Korea is becoming more transparent under Kim Jong-un.
It’s possible that Kim wasn’t actually responsible for the purge of his powerful uncle, Jang Sung-taek, last December, along with several other top-ranking officials close to the rule of his father, Kim Jong-il. Instead, Kim’s enemies may have effected Jang’s execution to send the young Kim a message about who really controls the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
It’s possible that under Xi Jinping, the People’s Republic of China is weary of making excuses for a regime that much of the rest of the world disregards, except as a potential nuclear nuisance to be contained and otherwise isolated.
It’s possible that the overweight Kim really was suffering from health problems that caused him to walk with a limp before his disappearance. That explains why, perhaps, he reappeared in photos earlier today, after a 40-day absence, using a cane, and following rumors that he suffered from an ankle injury and/or from gout.
It’s possible that the photos released aren’t even from yesterday, but recycled from a previous event or doctored.
In the depths of Kim’s disappearance, it was even possible that North Korea’s military leadership has staged a coup, and the high-profile trip by Hwang Pyong-so to Incheon for the Asian Games last week was the first step in what could be the process of reunification with South Korea. If and when South Korean reunification comes, it may come suddenly and unexpectedly.
But no one knows for sure what Kim’s absence signifies — and you shouldn’t trust anyone who says that they do know, because North Korea politics are still so incredibly opaque to the outside world.
The same thing is true now that Kim has allegedly resurfaced.
As Isaac Stone Fish wrote last week in Foreign Policy, unpredictability could be the greatest threat that outsiders face from North Korea:
The most dangerous thing about North Korea is its unpredictability. Because we know so little about what Pyongyang wants, or why it does what it does, it’s difficult to prepare for contingencies. North Korea has recently taken several steps to improve its ability to fire missiles at the United States: It has upgraded its main rocket-launch site, increased production of fissile material, and tested engines for a missile that could reach U.S. territory. Military planners and decision-makers in the U.S. government — and in other countries — need to be able to predict the likelihood that Kim will launch an attack on their country.
In Pyongyang’s fog-filled corridors of power, Kim, who took power in December 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, is a relatively known quantity. The outside world knows more about Kim — his background, his health, and his proclivities — than any other North Korean in North Korea. And while no American official is known to have met with Kim, many high-ranking Chinese have. Some of this received wisdom presumably filters into Washington during high-level meetings with Beijing. (Classified material presumably offers a richer look at the internal workings of both Pyongyang and Kim’s own mind.)
Kim took over as the country’s ‘supreme leader’ in December 2011, upon the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, who himself succeeded Kim Il-sung, who founded the North Korean regime in 1948, during the Korean War that separated the Chinese-backed and Soviet-backed Communist north and the US-backed south.
But the reality is that for much of the theories of Kim’s absence — and what it means for the future of both Koreas — we don’t really know what to expect.
The only country in the world with any truly substantive idea about the inner workings of North Korean government is China, and it’s not exactly sharing much of its information with top US officials, despite its membership in the six-party talks, along with South Korea, Russia and Japan, aim to find a peaceful resolution to the DPRK’s nuclear standoff with the rest of the world.
In the meanwhile, North Korea can make a steady claim to be one of the few truly totalitarian states left in the world, and its economic policy truly autarkic, which has fueled poverty, famine and rural drought in the past two decades, and which even North Koreans are beginning to realize have left them poorer than any other country in east Asia.
It means that videos like this, which provide a limited window into Pyongyang, are often some of the few glimpses Western observers have into a mysterious and tragically underdeveloped country: