The 40-day disappearance from public view of North Korea's young leader Kim Jong Un and his sudden reappearance on Monday, walking with a cane but otherwise apparently well, made headlines around the world. International media ran countless reports that Kim was either seriously ill or had even been deposed. Why was this such a big story, and why did so many get it wrong?
David Straub, a Korea expert at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center who formerly served as the State Department’s Korean affairs director, was one observer who consistently challenged that media narrative. In the following interview, he offers his analysis of both the North Korean situation and the way it was misinterpreted by a majority of the media.
Why didn’t you give credence to the reports that Kim Jong Un was seriously ill or had lost out in a power struggle?
I've been following North Korea professionally on and off since 1978. Looking at similar incidents, I've grown wary of poorly sourced reports about North Korea, and especially speculation, even when it comes from so-called “experts.” Because North Korea is a black box, mostly closed to outside view, almost anyone can get away with claiming that he or she is an expert. There are also many governments, groups and individuals that have axes to grind. Ignorance, wishful thinking and even disinformation are all too common when reporting on North Korea.
What was the evidence that led you to believe that Kim Jong Un wasn’t seriously ill, much less deposed?
There were only a few facts that we actually knew to be true during his absence. His last public appearance was on Sept. 3. In July and August, there was video of Kim Jong Un walking with a pronounced limp. Later in Sept., North Korean media reported that he was suffering an uncomfortable physical condition. Kim is now quite overweight, and there are also photographs of him wearing platform shoes. Therefore, the most likely explanation for his disappearance from public view was that he was receiving treatment for whatever caused the limp, and that he needed to stay off his feet until he was better. At age 31, it was unlikely that he was suffering from a more serious ailment. Moreover, just like his grandfather and father, Kim has previously dropped out of public view for many weeks at a time.
What about the reports that Kim was deposed?
There were zero credible sources that Kim had been deposed or that his leadership position had even been challenged. And, a great deal of speculation existed about the Oct. 4 visit of three top North Korean officials to South Korea, who attended the closing ceremony of the Asian Games there. But if there had actually been trouble in Pyongyang, the last thing one would have expected is for those officials to visit South Korea in such a manner. Meanwhile, one North Korean defector has been arguing for a long time that Kim has only been a figurehead and that real power in North Korea is wielded by officials in his party. The issue of just how much power Kim actually holds is an important one. The answer remains unclear to observers outside North Korea, and is a different issue from the stories about Kim's health and whether he had been overthrown.
Why did Kim suddenly reemerge?
The short answer is probably that his physical condition had improved enough. The photographs that North Korea media published on Monday show him walking with a cane but otherwise apparently in good health and in good spirits, and leading some of the same North Korean officials who recently visited South Korea, speculated by the media to be the ones who encouraged a coup.
Do you think that North Korea felt the need to show that Kim was still in charge after the media attention?
That too is speculation, but it is quite plausible. It is likely that Kim wanted to show not only the international community, but even more so, his own people that his physical condition is not serious. Ordinary North Koreans were of course not able to access international reports about Kim, but they knew that he was not appearing in their national media and presumably were wondering how he was.
But isn't it a problem for Kim to be seen in a weakened physical condition?
Kim's power and legitimacy in North Korea derive from the fact that his grandfather Kim Il Sung was the country's first leader, not from his physical condition or personal qualities. It’s no longer taboo in North Korea to show the top leader suffering from ailments. In fact, Kim's father Kim Jong Il was shown repeatedly looking extremely unwell after his stroke in 2008. Similarly, Kim Jong Un himself had already been shown in July and August on North Korean television suffering from the limp. In both cases, the North Korean media characterized the two Kims as hardworking leaders even when they were unwell. Moreover, as Yonsei University Professor John Delury has pointed out, actually showing Kim using a cane may be intentional because it makes him look a bit older and more mature.
What are we to make of the attention on Kim’s absence over the past several weeks?
I think it would be valuable if the international media would begin to apply better standards for its reporting on North Korea. North Korea poses important challenges to the international community, and citizens need to be informed about what's actually happening there, not what people imagine or those with ulterior motives would have us believe.
There is another, even more basic lesson to be drawn from this episode. With the rise of the Internet, information and misinformation have proliferated about North Korea, along with the ability to store and recall all of that information quickly. In addition, in popular imagination, the end of the Cold War transformed North Korea from an adjunct of the Soviet Union to an entity in itself, one that is both abhorrent and ridiculous. The result has been an exponential increase in the number of people throughout the world producing, circulating and consuming any information even remotely plausible about North Korea, and the established media in turn report on what those people are saying.
An increase in global attention to all things North Korea is important because it means North Korea can no longer hide itself from the international community. Already, this has contributed to the United Nation’s current consideration of legal action against the regime and its leaders over the human rights situation in the North. That is what North Korea’s leaders must have been worrying about over the past month as they watched the media reports—not Kim Jong Un’s bad leg.
Straub also spoke with Public Radio International (PRI) just before Kim’s reemergence, audio from “The World” radioshow is available on the PRI website.