Speculation about Kim’s health . . .
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s continued absence since April 12 has raised speculation about his personal health. Kim’s first absence since 2012 from celebrations of his grandfather’s birthday – the largest public holiday in the Hermit Kingdom –has further added to speculation that he may be gravely ill. On April 21, CNN reported that the U.S. has been ‘monitoring’ intelligence that Kim was in grave danger after cardiovascular surgery. Chang Song-min, the head of state administration under former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, said on April 23 that Kim Jong-un was in a coma, “virtually dead,” citing a high-profile Chinese official. Thae Koo-min, a defector who had served as North Korea’s ambassador to the U.K., said that it was “unusual” for the North Korean media to not respond to lingering speculations about Kim’s whereabouts. South Korea’s National Security Council, however, reports that there are no irregularities in North Korea, and the U.S. President said that CNN’s reporting on Kim was “incorrect.”
Doubts about North Korea’s claims of ‘0 COVID-19 cases’ . . .
On April 24, a U.S. official said American reconnaissance planes had spotted Kim walking on his own in Wonsan between April 15 and 20, and that there is intelligence suggesting that he is isolating himself outside Pyongyang after his aides and high-level government officials became infected with COVID-19. At the onset of the outbreak in China, Pyongyang immediately shut down its border with China, banned all international travel, and quarantined approximately 10,000 people. North Korea officially claims that it has no COVID-19 cases, which has raised doubts from experts who believe that North Korea either lacks adequate testing equipment to detect COVID-19 and/or it is hiding facts to ‘save face.’ While there is no reliable data, there are snippets of reports that detail severe measures of social distancing that have involved executions for violators and a mass outbreak in army ranks resulting in more than 180 deaths and 3,700 in quarantine.
North Korea’s dilapidated health-care infrastructure . . .
Regardless of the number of real cases, the COVID-19 pandemic and reports on Kim’s health highlight North Korea’s vulnerabilities. Following years of economic sanctions, North Korea’s health-care infrastructure is in a dire state. There are likely high numbers of viral and bacterial infections in the country, and experts believe that a mass outbreak would be catastrophic. Further, the closure of the border with China, Pyongyang’s key economic partner, has proven to be challenging for its already precarious economy. On March 25, the central government ordered all provincial party committees to acquire one-month’s supply of food, and there have been reports of “panic buying” of groceries in Pyongyang. China’s ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, said that North Korea has suffered “negatively” from the COVID-19 crisis and called for the lifting of sanctions.