Days after a first report, news of the demise of Kim Jong-un, leader of the hermit communist kingdom of North Korea, are pouring in. Even short of an official confirmation, an international consensus is building up that Kim the third of his dynasty is brain dead.
However, it’s true no one really can trust any source when dealing with North Korea with a long history of fake news artfully planted to seed confusion, draw attention and increase its wiggle room between partners and attentive neighbors.
There is in fact a very precise precedent. In 1986, loudspeakers at the border with the South announced the death of then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. South Korea believed the story and put its military on alert, but a few days later Kim resurfaced embarrassing everybody.
It was a difficult time. North Korea was losing the USSR as a supporter. Moscow, which was on the verge of bankruptcy and in the middle of Gorbachev’s reforms, had practically stopped its aid to North Korea and Pyongyang was entirely dependent on Chinese support. China, then far poorer than today, had not much to spare for the northern ally. Moreover, South Korea was in the middle of its democratization process; it had hosted the Asian Games and had won the bid to host the 1988 Olympics. Pyongyang with its gambit stole some wind from the South Korean sails.
Now, one can say there are similar circumstances. The bitter spiraling tussle between the USA and China, and the spread of the Coronavirus have all pushed North Korea out of the limelight. Pyongyang may want to recover some attention by leaking the story to ever gullible South Koreans who spice it up, pass it around and in a few days, or weeks, Kim Jong-un, third of his dynasty, will reappear fatter than ever.
Against this hypothesis there are however other considerations, besides the trust one may put in his own sources.
Some of the news and juiciest details come from China, not South Korea or USA. South Korea may be gullible and extra anxious, the US may be eager to undermine North Korea, but China is definitely interested in the stability of North Korea.
Beijing has already a long host of issues with the USA, battling the Coronavirus, and staving off internal power struggle. It doesn’t have the time and patience for adding some more plights to its plate, especially prickly ones like those of North Korea.
Moreover, Kim the Third has actually disappeared for almost two weeks. This would be troubling enough in normal circumstances. Yet now compared to 1986, when the Cold War was ending, USSR-US ties were warming up, and China-US ties were golden, there is great tension globally and in the region.
Differently from 1986, North Korea has ballistic missiles that can reach half way around the world and some kind of nuclear arsenal. Against this backdrop the vanishing Kim and Beijing’s apprehensions are reason enough to be extremely concerned about who has his fingers on those nukes. Seventy years ago, the Cold War started with the very hot war in Korea. Can Korea become the fuse of the real beginning of the Cold War 2?
Kim Jong-un had reached a delicate equilibrium between great powers and neighbors. This equilibrium is by itself falling apart following souring US-China ties. In this situation even a tiny movement in North Korea will scare everybody. As a result, Kim’s public absence is extremely sensitive.
All are good reasons to be extra worried and take very seriously informed accounts about Kim’s departure. Beijing may be very nervous about possible American or South Korean maneuvering in the North in a time like this.
This is the real point of the whole story and the question for the future. If the US and South Korea are somehow in the loop in the succession struggle in the North, this would change many things in Pyongyang, and also in Beijing.