What’s the matter with Kim Jong Un?

On April 15, Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, missed an important birthday celebration: that of his late grandfather, Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founding ruler. The younger Kim’s absence sparked speculation about his health. Early last week, Daily NK, a website based in South Korea, claimed that Kim had needed to undergo heart surgery due to “excessive smoking, obesity, and overwork.” The next day, CNN reported, citing Trump administration sources, that US officials had received intelligence suggesting that Kim may be in mortal peril. On Saturday, TMZ—which has a track record of breaking stories about celebrity perilsplashed, with characteristic subtlety, that Kim was “REPORTEDLY DEAD” (or dying); it cited regional media sources—including “a Hong Kong-backed news channel’s vice director who’s apparently the niece of a Chinese foreign minister”—that, it warned, in bold type, it had not itself corroborated. (Your average Hollywood gossip, this was not.) Twitter went into overdrive, but nothing concrete followed. Top officials in South Korea played down suggestions that much is amiss; one told CNN that Kim is “alive and well.” As the New York Post put it in a headline, Kim is variously “rumored to be dead, brain-dead, or just fine.”

Since the weekend, confusion has continued to swirl. South Korea’s unification minister said Kim may simply be hiding out from the coronavirus—but as one analyst pointed out to Reuters, if that’s the case, why has North Korea not issued any proof that he’s in good health? (North Korea has claimed not to have had any cases of the virus. This is unlikely.) Addressing the press at the White House yesterday evening, President Trump said he had “a very good idea” about Kim’s health that he couldn’t share just yet, then said that “nobody knows” where Kim is. Also yesterday, KCNA, North Korea’s state news agency, put out word that Kim had just sent a message of greeting to Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa—but it did not offer any photographic proof that Kim is at work. “This suggests (only suggests, we still have no confirmation) to me that he’s alive but sick/recovering,” Anna Fifield, Beijing bureau chief at the Washington Post and author of a recent book on Kim, said on Twitter of the KCNA statement. “The regime appears to be trying to show that he’s still in charge but not camera-ready.”

ICYMI: Pandemic coverage and information gaps

On Sunday, Fifield reported that rumors about Kim’s health aren’t just circulating internationally, but inside North Korea as well—sources have told Fifield that there’s currently panic buying in the country’s capital, Pyongyang; that helicopters are flying low over the city; and that transit has been disrupted, including at North Korea’s border with China. Such insight is rare: as I reported last year, following Trump and Kim’s failed nuclear talks in Vietnam, North Korea is a “black box.” Information is tightly controlled by the regime—trying to browse foreign news can get you sent to a concentration camp—and press freedom is nonexistent: the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, which Reporters Without Borders published last week, ranked North Korea as the worst of the 180 countries it surveyed. (Last year, the country rose to the heady heights of 179th place on the list, only to fall back below Turkmenistan to the bottom.)

In the absence of free access and reliable internal reporting, external North Korea watchers have to triangulate—from human sources, but also by tracking flight records, reading between the lines of state-media narratives, and scouring satellite imagery. On Saturday, 38 North, a website which analyzes North Korea from the US, and the New York Times reported that a train that probably belongs to Kim has been spotted, since April 21, at a station in Wonsan, close to where Kim has a compound. This could be a clue as to Kim’s current whereabouts, although, as experts told the Times, North Korea has been known to manipulate visual signals—the deployment of Kim’s personal guard, for example—to throw long-range sleuths off the scent.

Clues are better than nothing, especially in the hands of seasoned experts. But they can only tell us so much. When it comes to stories like Kim’s current, alleged ill health/death, rumors that, if applied to almost any other major world figure, wouldn’t pass muster with major news organizations don’t just gain traction—the existence of the rumors, and the information ecosystem within which they spread, becomes the story.

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In her piece for the Post, Fifield noted that, in the past, similar rumors about Kim Il Sung and his successor, Kim Jong Il, eventually proved unfounded. In recent days, she says she’s been “bombarded with questions” as to whether the reports of the younger Kim’s death may also be greatly exaggerated. “The short answer right now is: I don’t know. None of us will know until either North Korea tells us or he waddles back into view,” she wrote. Now, however, “the rumors feel different… Some analysts agree that this time it seems like more than the usual scuttlebutt.”

Below, news about the coronavirus:


Other notable stories:

  • Tara Reade, a former staffer in Biden’s Senate office, alleged recently that Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993. Reade’s brother and an unnamed friend confirmed that Reade told them about the alleged incident after it happened; now Lynda LaCasse, a retired medical worker in California, has also come forward in support of Reade’s story, telling Business Insider’s Rich McHugh that Reade recounted the allegation to her when they were neighbors in the mid-1990s. Biden’s campaign has strongly denied Reade’s claims.
  • For Vanity Fair, Caleb Ecarma profiles the American Conservative, a magazine, founded in opposition to the Iraq war, that wants to become Trump’s “in-house, in-flight magazine,” and “The Atlantic of the right.” Articles from the magazine, Ecarma reports, circulate regularly inside the Trump administration and campaign, suggesting TAC “is more of a Trump ideologue’s publication, if not the president’s own choice reading.”
  • Emily Atkin, of HEATED, has a scathing review of Planet of the Humans, a new climate documentary from Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs that has won plaudits on the right, and that claims, per Atkin, that “renewable energy is worse for the planet than fossil fuels.” The film, Atkin says, is akin to “an argumentative essay from a lazy college freshman.”
  • The American Civil Liberties Union and partner plaintiffs will (virtually) argue in court today that the public should be allowed to see a sealed ruling that reportedly blocked the Justice Department from forcing Facebook to alter its Messenger service so that the FBI could access it. Today’s is the first public hearing related to the case, the ACLU says.
  • In Benin, Ignace Sossou—a journalist who was jailed last year for accurately reporting remarks from a public prosecutor at a conference—will also appear in court today, to appeal his 18-month sentence. Organizations including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders are calling for Sossou’s immediate release.
  • Local authorities in New South Wales, Australia, are no longer required to place ads with newspapers—a potential “nail in the coffin” for local outlets’ finances that mirrors similar moves in the US. Officials in some areas said the recent closure of Murdoch-owned print titles left them unable to comply with the law. The Sydney Morning Herald has more.
  • And for a forthcoming podcast, Patrick Radden Keefe, of the New Yorker, investigated whether the Scorpions’ 1990 hit “Wind of Change” was written by the CIA. The podcast, from Crooked Media and Pineapple Street Studios, will debut on Spotify on May 11.

ICYMI: Why the Left Can’t Stand the New York Times

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.