Has Kim Jong-un died? Is the leader of North Korea in a vegetative state after undergoing a heart surgery earlier this month? After days questioning the fate of Kim, a vice director of HKSTV Hong Kong Satellite Television reported Kim died over the weekend.
The claim was made in a post on Chinese social media platform, Weibo. She is also the niece of a Chinese foreign official, and said she got the information from "a very solid source." Meanwhile, Japanese magazine Shūkan Gendai reported Kim is in a vegetative state, and needed cardiovascular surgery after collapsing during a visit to a rural area.
While neither claim has yet been confirmed, Reuters reported Friday night China had dispatched a team of medical professionals to North Korea to advise on Kim's health.
Also subject to much speculation is the question of the state of things in North Korea. Can the Hermit Kingdom continue without its Supreme Leader?
“It’s a very legitimate question to ask,” journalist Barbara Demick, the author of “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” told InsideEdition.com. “He’s a young man in poor health, and there’s no obvious line of succession.”
The speculation comes as Kim reportedly underwent cardiovascular surgery earlier this month, and was recovering at a villa in Mount Kumgang, a picturesque mountain range that once allowed foreign tourists, including those from South Korea.
When he didn’t appear at the ceremonies commemorating the Day of the Sun on April 15, an annual public event commemorating his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s birthday that is considered the most important holiday in the country, many speculated the procedure may have taken a turn for the worse.
“The man is clearly not in good health. He's a very heavy smoker, heavy drinker,” Demick said, adding that Kim is also morbidly obese, weighing approximately 300 pounds while only 5-foot-7.
But Demick said she didn’t necessarily believe his lack of appearance at the holiday correlated to his worsening health, but could possibly be due to COVID-19, despite North Korea having claimed there were zero cases within its borders.
“You are in the middle of this coronavirus pandemic,” Demick said. “I think it's very plausible that they didn't want the top leader exposed at a public event.”
She also explained it’s hard to know which reports to believe when it comes to the Hermit Kingdom. “You’ve seen the stories. We report someone has been executed and then like two months later you see them in a parade or they show up at some summit,” she said.
But what would happen if, by chance, Kim does die? At only 36 years old, and having ruled Korea for less than a decade, Kim does not yet have a clear successor tapped. “His children, they’re toddlers. He hasn’t designated an obvious successor," Demick said.
North Korea has only undergone two successions, she explained, so it’s hard to know what a normal succession may look like. However, when North Korea’s first leader Kim Il-sung succeeded to his son Kim Jong-il upon his death in 1994, he “had been designated the successor quite long before his father's death and was already sort of in command of quite a bit of the government by the time his father died,” Demick said.
Similarly in their second ever succession, when Kim was poised to take over his father's Kim Jong-il's position, he was tapped years before he rose to leadership.
“It’s always a very sensitive matter because the North Korean leaders are God-like figures and the assumption is these God-like figures can’t die, they’re not ordinary mortals” Demick said. “And family is very important in North Korea because their legitimacy is this sort of sacred bloodline through Kim Il-sung. It's hard to imagine a non-relative being in that top job, even as a figurehead.”
Which is why one possible outcome, Demick speculated, is that Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong may rise to leadership. “She has been elevated to various positions. Last year, she attended the Olympics in South Korea as a representative of the ruling family. She was at the [2019 North Korea-United States] Summit in Hanoi with Donald Trump, so she’s the most obvious family member,” she explained.
However, is North Korea ready for a female leader?
“It's always been said that a woman couldn't take charge of North Korea because it's such a Confucian, sexist country and probably one of the worst in Asia as far as women's equality,” Demick said. “Although she's supposedly in a position of power and you've seen her in public, she's been in a very supportive role. In Hanoi, she was like carrying his ash tray and fetching flowers, kind of like the tea ladies.”
Kim’s brother, Kim Jong-chul, may also be a questionable choice. He is often described as effeminate, with “the warm heart of a girl,” according to a former sushi chef for the family. He is also reportedly a fan of Eric Clapton, having seen him in concert many times around the world, including twice, two nights in a row, in London in 2015, the Washington Post reported.
"I don’t know if those are code words for ‘gay’ or just not interested in leadership,” Demick said. “He has always been out of succession.”
The eldest brother, Kim Jong-nam, who was originally considered the heir to his father, was assassinated in February 2017.
Looking beyond the family, Demick said there’s additional government structures in place that would likely facilitate a transition or at least keep operations running in the absence of a clear successor.
“There's a North Korean leadership in the background, non-family, who are very powerful and have great control of the country. They could put somebody in as the figurehead and keep the system going for some time. It’s not completely a one-man show so there are people who could take over,” Demick explained. “[But] it’s hard to imagine the current leadership staying in tact without a family member.”
However, that doesn’t mean there will necessarily be a smooth transition. “Under every scenario, a power struggle would probably occur. I’m sure it’s occurring now,” Demick said.
But could North Korea be no more? “I think it shouldn’t be assumed it’s just going to collapse,” she said.
“Something about North Korea that isn’t really clear from the outside is that it’s actually a lot stronger now than it was in 2011, when Kim Jong-il died,” Demick said. “Relative to neighboring countries in northeast Asia, it's a basket case, but Kim Jong-un did quite well. The economy has shown little signs of life. There are markets, there are mobile telephones, there are solar panels. He's managed to get around UN sanctions. There's a lot of products from China. He's been, by a North Korean standard, quite a successful leader.”
She said what the world, instead, could hope for is that the next leader of North Korea would be more democratic, with goals of opening up the country to the world, improving the lives of its citizens and removing its nuclear weapons.
“Many people have been hoping for, for decades, that North Korea will end its isolation and become part of the prosperity of northeast Asia,” she said.