Diplomatic experts have raised the specter of an uncertain transfer of power with no clear heir in sight. There is no real way to gauge the stability of the regime, and of the Korean peninsula more generally, if Kim is incapacitated to lead the country.
Some fear that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal could potentially fall into the wrong hands or that China could exert itself and take control of the country, giving Chinese President Xi Jinping even stronger standing in the region, which would ultimately weaken U.S. influence.
Will his sister take over?
Kim’s sister, 32-year-old Kim Yo Jong, is widely seen as an heir apparent, but the country has never had a woman as its supreme leader.
Kim Yo Jong has been by her brother’s side at summits with President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, sat behind Vice President Mike Pence while representing North Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympics and became the first immediate member of the ruling family to visit Seoul, where she delivered a personal message from her brother inviting South Korean President Moon Jae-in to a summit.
What you need to know: Kim Yo Jong
“Yo Jong’s role will likely be limited to a regent at most” due to North Korea’s feudal patriarchy, said Yoo Ho-yeol, who teaches North Korean studies at Korea University and formerly advised South Korea’s unification ministry and defense ministry. “Not only the male-dominant leadership but also ordinary people there would resist a female leader.”
The country’s military leadership could also turn to infighting for control.
Who is Kim Jong Un?
What do we really know about the man who leads North Korea?
Those looking to understand Kim face a problem. Much of what the outside world sees is filtered through relentless North Korean propaganda meant to build him into an infallible paragon of leadership.
Add to that vaguely sourced or misleading outside media reports and the extreme difficulty of cracking North Korea’s ultra-secrecy surrounding anything to do with the leader, and the picture that emerges of Kim is often more mosaic than profile.
The Kim family dynasty has ruled North Korea for three generations since its founding after World War II, when the Soviet Union and the U.S. divided up control of the Korean Peninsula. Over that time, it has built up one of the world’s most vigorous personality cults — making the preeminent claim to legitimacy in the dictatorship a bloodline said to stem from the sacred Mount Paektu near the Chinese border.
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Kim came to power in late 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
In South Korea, he is seen as a demon and a statesman. He has repeatedly threatened to burn Seoul to the ground. He has also rolled out the red carpet for a visit to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, by South Korea’s president and sent his own sister south for the 2018 Olympics.
In the West, portrayals of Kim often run to caricature. His broken friendship with Dennis Rodman, the former basketball star he reportedly idolized as a schoolboy; the rumors about his extreme love of cheese and his allegedly creative ways of disposing of officials who displease him.
Then there’s the stunning series of summits during the last two years with the leaders of Russia, China, the United States and South Korea.
Birth, rise to power
Kim was likely born in 1984 and attended boarding school for several years in Switzerland. Early on, some observers argued that his time in the West would lead him to eventually embrace Chinese-style reforms.
That has not happened so far, though he has taken a markedly different approach to leadership than his publicity-shy father, Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011.
Outside governments and experts initially questioned the ability of a man then in his 20s to lead, but Kim Jong Un quickly consolidated power. He ordered the 2013 execution of his uncle and mentor, Jang Song Thaek, who was accused of treason. Kim is also suspected of ordering the assassination of his estranged half-brother, and potential rival, at a Malaysian airport in 2017.
On the world stage
Kim has shown a growing confidence on the world stage, most clearly with the high-stakes diplomacy that followed a run of nuclear and missile tests in 2017 that had many fearing war.
The sight of a North Korean leader meeting with his South Korean and U.S. rivals was extraordinary, though it’s not yet clear whether the diplomacy will settle an uneasy region.
Kim entered 2020 vowing to bolster his nuclear deterrent in the face of “gangster-like” U.S. economic sanctions, and he supervised a series of weapons launches and military drills in March.
Much of what happens now will depend on Kim’s health.
North Korea, despite its poverty, has long commanded world attention because of its sustained, belligerent pursuit of what it calls self-defensive measures in response to U.S. hostility — and what critics call an illegal accumulation of nuclear bombs.
There’s debate about whether North Korea ever intended to give up its nuclear weapons during the summits with Washington and Seoul. But the diplomacy seems inconceivable without Kim.
That raises fears, during a potential moment of massive political instability, of a return to threats and increasingly powerful weapons tests meant to perfect the nuclear weapons seen as the only real guarantee of the Kim family’s power.
Relations with the United States
In early January, North Korea said Trump had sent birthday greetings to Kim, but added that the rapport between the two leaders would not help resolve their countries’ nuclear standoff.
Ever since his first summit meeting with Kim, in June 2018, Trump has repeatedly flaunted his “good relationship” with the North’s leader, calling Kim “smart” and even going so far as to say that he and Kim “fell in love.”
The two leaders have also exchanged letters and dispatched special envoys to each other’s capitals, but talks on how to denuclearize the North remains deadlocked.
The denuclearization talks collapsed when Kim and Trump met in Vietnam in February 2019 for a second summit meeting and Trump rejected Kim’s offer to dismantle one of the North’s nuclear fuel-production facilities if Washington lifted international sanctions. Trump insisted on a more comprehensive rollback of North Korea’s nuclear program.
President Trump Meets Kim Jong Un At DMZ, Steps Over Border Into North Korea
Trump next met Kim at the Korean Demilitarized Zone in June 2019 in an unprecedented but historic meeting between the two leaders. Trump was the first sitting American president to step foot into North Korea.
Kim said recently that he no longer expected the United States to ease sanctions. Instead, he vowed to expand his country’s nuclear force, warning that North Korea no longer felt bound by a moratorium on nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests.
As recently as late March, North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast, a week after its leader received a letter from Trump offering to help the country fight the coronavirus.
Asked Monday if he knew anything about Kim’s health, Trump said “I do have a pretty good idea, but I can’t talk about it now. I do know how he’s doing. I just wish him well.”
There’s not much to go on here despite the building media coverage.
Some unconfirmed news reports say Kim is in fragile condition or even a vegetative state following heart surgery.
The South Korean government, however, maintains that Kim still appears to be in power and that there have been no signs that something big has happened in North Korea.
What’s uncontested is that Kim hasn't appeared in public since an April 11 meeting focused on the coronavirus. This sort of vanishing act has happened before, but what has set rumors ablaze now is that for the first time as leader he missed the most important holiday of the North Korean year, the April 15 celebration of his grandfather’s birth.
There have been no photographs and no videos of the leader in nearly three weeks, only state media reports of him sending written greetings to world leaders or citizens of merit.
— Compiled by ArLuther Lee for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Foster Klug was the principal writer of this report for The Associated Press. Information provided by The New York Times was also used to supplement this report.