Friday, 10 October 2014

Has there been a coup in North Korea?

Rumours abound about the whereabouts of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. The secretive state’s leader hasn’t been seen for over a month.

Even on a good day, it’s difficult to penetrate the closed North Korean society and yet more eyes are on that country than anywhere else. Still, fantasy and conjecture fills the normal information gap about this country more than perhaps any other nation-state.

All this makes it more difficult than usual to discover what’s happening now. The country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has been out of the public eye since September 3, fueling suspicion that Mr Kim could have been overthrown in a coup after only three years in power.

The normally boisterous, but pudgy, dictator generally loves the limelight. He appears at factory events, stage shows, missile launches and all manner of kooky press photo ops. The last time he was seen was smoking cigarettes at a performance by the all-female North Korean Moranbong Band.

His family is known to have a history of diabetes and obesity (although Mr Kim’s love of food also explains his weight). That could explain why, at the recent event, he had a limp and was noticeably overweight.

Asia watchers and foreign policy analysts are divided over two main theories about the sudden disappearance. The coup scenario has been floated by serious analysts, but the second contender is that the dictator is recovering from some type of injury and will be back on deck eventually.

Andrei Lankov of South Korea’s Kookmin University said recently that the hypothesis of a simple illness isn’t entirely out of the question.

“People get sick. I wouldn’t make much of it,” he says. The only government reports from Pyongyang say that Mr Kim is suffering from “discomfort”.

Other rumours suggest Mr Kim’s little sister, Kim Yo Jong, is running the country in her brother’s absence. A former North Korean counterintelligence officer is also claiming that Mr Kim was overthrown in December, although this suggestion should be viewed with suspicion considering his professional history.

In North Korea later today, the country will celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the communist Worker’s Party and Mr Kim is expected to attend. If he does appear, most things will be back to normal in the hermetic nation.

But if he doesn’t attend, the implications of a sharp regime change may need to be seriously addressed. The problem is, no one outside the Pyongyang elite really knows what’s going on inside the regime.

Mr Kim never had the training that either his father or grandfather had before they entered into power. He is very young and inexperienced. He has often clashed with powerful military figures over key decisions.

Mr Kim’s schedule is also punishing. Considering all the events he must attend, and his medical history, the hypothesis that he is either injured or simply overworked does carry some possibility.

But he shares the responsibility of governing the state with other elites. The President of the Supreme People’s Assembly and the chairman of the National Defence Commission, alongside a few others, are constantly maneuvering for greater control and privilege.

Hundreds of military advisers and officers have been dismissed since Kim Jong Un came to power. The country constantly works through crises so the latest isn’t unusual. If Mr Kim has been deposed, however, it will be the first time the Kim dynasty has lost its hold on power in more than 50 years.

Keeping an eye on what China is doing will also be important because Beijing is the closest ally to the North Korean regime. A shift in behavior from Beijing could indicate a change in North Korea, although what that shift will look like is unknown.

There’s too much speculation about Pyongyang to assume nothing is wrong in the North Korean nation. Regardless of what happens at the anniversary parade, it is becoming increasingly clear that Mr Kim has lost much of his power and a transition could be in the works anyway.

Rumours are dangerous at the best of times. But when it comes to North Korea, rumours could be critical. A lot rests on whether North and South Korea can remain largely at peace. A restive North Korea would not be a good sign for international stability.

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