Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Is Kim Jong-un Still at North Korea's Helm?

By Nate JaraPublished October 24, 2014

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Kim Jong-un's lengthy disappearance from the public eye sparked intense speculation about the possibility of a coup in North Korea. Should his recent resurfacing put rumors of his removal from power to rest? The short answer: no.
By Nate Jara, 10/24/14

It has never been very clear who is truly pulling the strings behind North Korea's introverted state apparatus. While common wisdom maintains that the young Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un wields complete authority over the communist state, rumors often circle that Kim is nothing more than a figurehead, holding a purely ceremonial position while serving at the whim of upper level North Korean Communist Party and military members. The complete lack of transparency into North Korean affairs and credible sources of information makes deciphering the true nature of the regime difficult. But, often-discounted rumors of a shadow government operating in Kim's stead became much more plausible after Kim Jong-un's disappearance from the view of the public for over six weeks. These recent developments make conspiracy theories of a coup less crazy than one might think. 

Until October 13th, Kim Jong-un had not made a public appearance since September 3rd. The official reasoning presented through the state-operated Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) was that Kim fractured both of his ankles during a rigorous touring of military bases, while speculation in the South Korean media alluded to everything from gout to obesity-related illnesses like high blood pressure. Fractured ankles aren't entirely out of the question considering Kim returned to the public eye sporting a cane while touring a newly constructed residence for scientists, but if Kim is being used as a prop to deflect speculation about the North Korean leadership, then using a cane as a prop doesn't seem out of the question either. 

Much more interesting than the reported cause for Kim's absence, however, was what occurred during it. On September 19th the 2014 Asian Games (a multi-sport event similar to the Olympics) kicked off in Incheon, South Korea, featuring nations from across Asia and the Middle East, including India, China, Iran, and, yes, North Korea. In the midst of the Games, on October 3rd, three of the highest-ranking officials in North Korea made a surprise visit to South Korea for a series of "high-level talks." Hwang Pyang-so, believed by many to be the number two in the North behind Kim Jong-un, lead the entourage of party officials to resume an interstate dialogue that had been suspended for several years. This visit was unprecedented and has led many to take the rumors of Kim's removal from power much more seriously.

Kim Jong-un's return to the public eye on October 13th complicates things, but it certainly doesn't discredit speculation of a coup entirely. It may be in the best interest of North Korean leadership to keep Kim in the spotlight in order to preserve internal stability and deflect any international criticism of North Korean state action. Kim, like many other autocrats, shields most high-ranking state officials from accountability by acting as a "rogue leader," which would suggest that the North Korean leadership might be incentivized to preserve the status quo by trotting Kim around for show while removing any influence he may have on decision-making. 

Ultimately the nature of the North Korean state and lack of any kind of credible media makes coming to informed conclusions about the current condition of the North Korean leadership difficult to say the least, but if anything, these recent developments have sparked intense speculation as to who, if not Kim Jong-un, is the man behind the curtain running North Korea.