As I write this, it’s looking like recent reports of the demise of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have been a little premature. Kim disappeared from public view on 11 April 2020, and rumours began to circulate that the chain-smoking, overweight dictator had undergone cardiovascular surgery, and had either died or was in “a vegetative state”. Now, with the release of a new video, it seems more likely that he was holed up in his luxurious seaside villa in Wonsan, where he entertained his buddy Dennis Rodman during one of the basketballer’s visits to North Korea in 2013.
The irony of all this is that, in a world already turned upside down by Covid-19, the death of an erratic dictator with a nuclear button within reach would have been, rather than a reason to rejoice, the last thing anyone needed.
Dictators rarely have a succession plan in place, so when they die there is typically a mad scramble by their deputies, often involving bloodshed, until one of them emerges on top. (Witness the turmoil after Stalin’s death.) This process is made immensely more complicated in North Korea by the extraordinary decision of its first leader, Kim Il-sung, to turn his country into the world’s first communist dynastic state. He anointed his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, to succeed him, and for a while, Kim Jong-il’s eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, was in line to succeed him. But Kim Jong-nam blotted his copybook in 2001 when he was caught trying to smuggle two women and his son into Tokyo Disneyland. According to Kim Jong-il’s Japanese sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto (who has been an invaluable source of information about North Korea’s inner circle), Jong-il had already decided that Jong-nam was too ‘girly’ to succeed him, and was now favouring his younger son, Jong-un, because he was ‘mean’. Jong-nam subsequently went into exile and started making the critical comments about the North Korean regime, which would see him fatally poisoned by a couple of female patsies in Kuala Lumpur Airport in 2017, almost certainly on the orders of his younger brother.
Once rumours began to swirl that Kim Jong-un was dead, three possible scenarios were put forward by analysts. The first was that his sister Kim Yo-jong might succeed him. Kim Jong-un is very close to her — as children they both went to school in Switzerland in the 1990s. She is said to be North Korea’s propagandist-in-chief, responsible for maintaining her brother’s personality cult. She is often seen in public with him and was by his side during his two summit meetings with Donald Trump. The problem with this scenario is that North Korea is such a patriarchal society, suddenly installing a woman as supreme leader could be a leap too far.
The second possible scenario was that Kim Jong-un would be succeeded by one of his offspring (he is known to have at least one and probably more children). This of course is consistent with the dynastic logic of North Korea. And if this proposed successor is too young to take charge yet, a ‘prince regent’ could be appointed to run the country until the next Kim off the production line is ready to take over.
The third scenario was, essentially, chaos. Various groups within North Korea’s upper echelons would have jockeyed for power and the whole system could have broken down. That would almost certainly have led to food shortages, and hundreds of thousands of North Koreans pouring across the border into South Korea, China and other countries. And whoever eventually gained power would still have had that nuclear button close at hand. Kim Jong-un is at least a known quantity and hasn’t yet shown any great enthusiasm to press it.
The point that needs to be kept firmly in mind when considering all this is that, to the North Korean people, the Kims are not men but gods, and this is something they are taught from childhood. Indeed, the embalmed corpse of Kim Il-sung is still officially North Korea’s president, and will remain so forever. In his lifetime, an Institute of Health and Longevity was set up, its sole purpose being to keep him alive (the methods to achieve this included him sleeping with young girls, and regularly eating dog penises at least 7 centimetres long). Kim Il-sung lived to 82, and Kim Jong-il made it to 69. Just the idea that a god like Kim Jong-un could die at a relatively young age (he is believed to be 36) would be have been very hard to fit into the script.
So, although it pains me to say it, I’m actually glad that Kim Jong-un is apparently still hale and hearty — for the time being at least. Maybe he did just go into isolation to avoid the coronavirus as some have claimed (although North Korea is still officially free of it). If so, he was having a fine old time. After his visit to Kim’s Wonsan villa, Dennis Rodman said of it, “Everything is five star, six star, seven star. It’s just a great day every day. There was so much entertainment, so much fun, just so much relaxation. Everything was just so perfect.”