- Kim Jong Un has been mysteriously absent from several key events since a rumored heart surgery that left him in “grave danger” earlier this month.
- Now, Japanese and Hong Kong media have reported that the North Korean leader is in a “vegetative state” or “dead,” respectively.
- South Korea has denied such claims, saying Kim is “alive and well.”
- Still, Kim’s potential death has raised questions about who could succeed him, with one possibility being his sister even though North Korea is a highly patriarchal society.
North and South Korea Say Kim is “Alive and Well”
Conflicting reports of Kim Jong Un’s health have continued to swirl in recent days, with media outlets in several countries reporting that the North Korean leader is dead and government officials in other countries denying those claims.
The latest development came Monday morning when a North Korean state-run newspaper issued a message reportedly from Kim to builders working on a tourism project in the country.
The letter would appear to show Kim alive and well; however, he has not been seen in over two weeks. In fact, Kim has missed more than one major event, including a missile test and North Korea’s biggest holiday on April 15. Notably, he has never missed that holiday—The Day of the Sun—since he took over the country after his father, Kim Jong-il, died in 2011.
The crux of the rumors is that Kim faced complications following heart surgery days before that national holiday, with the story taking off internationally after CNN reported that he was in “grave danger.”
On Monday, South Korea took that hardline stance on Kim’s wellbeing, with the top foreign policy adviser to President Moon Jae-in telling CNN that Kim is “alive and well.”
This is not the first time South Korea has denied reports that Kim is ill. On Sunday the country’s unification minister called the rumors symptoms of an “infodemic” and said, “Our government has enough information-gathering capabilities to say confidently that there is nothing unusual.”
According to The New York Times, “it is highly unusual for a senior South Korean official to publicly dispute news reports about what is happening inside North Korea’s secretive leadership. Normally, South Korean officials maintain a neither-confirm-nor-deny policy, at least on the record, for fear of disturbing sensitive relations between the two Koreas.”
While United States officials have treated the reports seriously and said they’re closely monitoring intelligence on Kim’s health, President Donald Trump on Thursday said he doesn’t believe Kim is ill.
“We have a good relationship with North Korea, as good as you can have,” Trump said. “I mean, we have a good relationship with North Korea. I have a good relationship with Kim Jong Un, and I hope he’s okay. And somebody would say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible. No, it’s not terrible. I hope he’s okay, and I think it was a fake report done by CNN.
Japanese Media Says Kim Jong Un in “Vegetative State”
On Friday, the Japanese magazine Shukan Gendai reported that Kim is now in a “vegetative state” after undergoing emergency heart surgery,
According to the outlet, earlier this month, Kim clutched his chest then fell to the ground while visiting the countryside. Reportedly, he needed a stent and while the country called in for Chinese medical experts, a North Korean surgeon operated on him following a delay.
The Chinese doctor who spoke to Shukan Gendai told them that the North Korean doctor was nervous and “shaking” because he had never operated on an obese person.
A different report from a vice director for Hong Kong Satellite Television—a Beijing-backed broadcast network—claiming that Kim was now dead. That statement, made in a post on the popular social media platform, has now been widely shared.
Alongside these reports last week, China dispatched a team with medical experts to North Korea, though according to Reuters, it’s not known what this trip means for Kim’s health.
Who Would Succeed Kim?
One of the big reasons the rumors of Kim’s death have persisted is because of fears over what might happen to the country’s nuclear-arms program, especially since that arsenal has grown substantially under Kim Jong Un.
Because of concerns like that, many have wondered who would take over for Kim if reports on his death were true, and how would they rule?
But the answer is that no one really knows for sure.
Part of that is because the country doesn’t appear to have a formal succession plan in place. Another part is that even though Kim is believed to have three children, the details around them are extremely guarded.
In fact, it’s actually believed that Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, could rule until his successor is old enough to take over. As Reuters reports, she’s been the most visible presence around Kim in the past two years.
She currently serves as the vice director of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee and as Kim’s unofficial chief of staff.
Still, there are a lot of doubts that she’ll take over since North Korea is a highly patriarchal society. On top of that, no woman has ever run the country.
That’s why others have speculated that Kim could be replaced by his uncle or his older brother, who was originally passed over when their father died.
If Kim Yo Jong was to replace Kim Jong Un for whatever reason, experts say at least for the first few months, North Korea would likely look inward. This is because she would very likely focus on consolidating her power and showing off her strength. Kim Jong Un demonstrated a similar tactic in 2011 following his ascension.
According to Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who specialized in the Koreas, who spoke to Time Magazine, “When North Korea reemerges, their goal would still be the same: to slowly get America to accept them as a nuclear power and lift international sanctions. And that means the same tensions between and Pyongyang and Washington would most likely remain.”
Still, it’s incredibly important to remember here that these reports are unverified. Kim Jong Un has gone “missing” for weeks at a time in the past. Some believe he may just be staying behind closed doors because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
See what others are saying: (Reuters) (Time) (New York Post)
China Cautiously Crawls Out of Zero COVID Policy
Estimates put the number of people who will die if China fully reopens between 1.3 and 2 million, but higher vaccination rates could limit the death toll.
People Go Back to Bars
The Chinese government has begun to ease some of its notoriously strict pandemic lockdown measures, signaling that the end of the “zero-COVID” policy may be on the horizon.
On Monday, commuters in Beijing and at least 16 other cities were allowed to board buses and subways without a virus test in the previous 48 hours for the first time in months.
In Shanghai, visitors to most sites will require a negative test within the last week, rather than the last two days, though schools, hospitals, and bars will require one within the past 48 hours.
Dining in restaurants in some parts of Beijing is still prohibited, but bars and restaurants in many areas of the country are reopening.
In Urumqi, where anti-lockdown protests erupted late last month after an apartment fire killed 10 people, authorities said in a statement Monday that malls, markets, and other venues will reopen.
Zhengzhou, the central city home to the world’s largest iPhone plant which was last month rocked by violent unrest, will no longer require COVID test results for public transport, taxis, and visits to “public areas”, authorities said in a Sunday statement.
Beijing authorities had required registration to purchase fever, cough, and soar throat medicine, which they believed people were using to hide their coronavirus infections, but that mandate has been lifted. Certain districts in the capital also announced that some residents may self-isolate inside their homes rather than being forced to quarantine in a centralized facility.
Is China Ready to Reopen?
Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees COVID efforts, said last week that the country’s health system had withstood the test of the virus and that the omicron subvariant is less deadly than previous strains.
But there has not been a significant drop in cases recently to prompt the easing of restrictions. On Monday, the government reported 30,014 new cases, down from last week’s peak of over 40,000 but still near record highs for China.
Some observers speculate that the government’s move was related to the recent protests, in which thousands of people poured onto the streets of several major cities to demand freedom and an end to the zero-COVID policy. Authorities cracked down on demonstrators, and any mention of the protests was rigorously censored on Chinese social media.
There was no sign of any significant unrest this weekend.
Although many people are excited to enjoy less restricted lives and restart a shuddered economy, others are concerned about the public health consequences reopening society could incur. Estimates put the number of people who will die from the coronavirus if China fully reopens between 1.3 and 2 million, but higher vaccination rates could limit the death toll.
Last week, the government launched a campaign to vaccinate the elderly population.
Only about 40% of people over the age of 80 have gotten their booster shot, according to official statistics.
Health experts and economists say vaccination rates and ICU preparedness won’t be sufficient to fully end the zero-COVID policy until mid-2023 or 2024.
See what others are saying: (BBC) (Associated Press) (Reuters)
India Pedestrian Bridge Collapsed 4 Days After Renovations, Killing Over 100 People
The company responsible for the upkeep of the Morbi bridge did not obtain a safety certificate before re-opening.
After seven months of renovations, the Morbi walking bridge in India opened to the public. Four days later, the bridge collapsed, killing more than 130 people.
According to the local government, there were about 200 people on the bridge when it collapsed on Sunday, despite its capacity of 125.
During a campaign event on Monday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the state government had set up a committee to investigate the tragedy.
“I assure the people of the country that there will be nothing lacking in the relief and rescue efforts,” he stated.
Along with the investigation, the state has launched a criminal complaint against Oreva Group, the company responsible for maintaining the bridge. Oreva Group reopened the bridge after renovations without getting a safety certificate from the government.
In response, Oreva Group spoke to a local news outlet and blamed those on the bridge for its collapse.
“While we are waiting for more information, prima facie, the bridge collapsed as too many people in the mid-section of the bridge were trying to sway it from one way to the other,” the group claimed.
The state government has offered compensation for the families of the deceased, but that is not enough for some. One father whose wife and two children died in the collapse told VICE he wants answers and accountability.
“Why were so many people given tickets? Who allowed them? Who is answerable?” he asked.
Indian police have arrested nine people including ticketing clerks and security guards for failing to regulate the crowd, according to Reuters.
Xi Jinping Tightens Grip on China by Eliminating Rivals
Despite the staggering power grab, Xi faces geopolitical competition from abroad as well as social and economic instability at home.
Xi Surrounds Himself With Allies
Chinese President Xi Jinping shook up politics over the weekend when he revealed the government’s new leadership, almost exclusively composed of his own hardline loyalists.
Six men — Li Qiang, Zhao Leji, Wang Huning, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang, and Li Xi — will form the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top ruling body.
The four new members are all Xi loyalists, pushing out Premier Li Keqiang and the head of China’s top advisory body Wang Yang, two key party figures outside Xi’s inner circle who retired despite being eligible to serve another term.
For the first time in a quarter-century, China’s 24-member Politburo will be made up entirely of men, underlining the exclusion of women from Chinese politics.
An official account of the selection process said that a top criterion for leadership was loyalty to Xi, and rising officials must stay in lockstep with him “in thinking, politics and action.”
Topping off the developments, Xi officially secured an unprecedented third term as leader, something that was only made possible in 2018 when the government abolished term limits on the presidency. The weekend marked China’s greatest consolidation of political power in a single figure in decades.
As the 20th Communist Party Congress came to a close Saturday, China’s former leader Hu Jintao appeared reluctant as he was suddenly and inexplicably escorted from his seat next to Xi out of the Great Hall of the People.
Some commentators have argued that a tightly knit band of yes men may help Xi fend off internal party dissent, but it could ultimately result in poor governance as his subordinates fear giving him bad news.
The Arc of History Bends Toward China
Despite the extreme concentration of political power, China’s Communist Party stares down a gauntlet of challenges both foreign and domestic.
Beijing remains locked in a strategic competition with Washington, which has sought to contain the East Asian rival’s rise as a global superpower, but the past week’s congress may portend a stubbornly defiant China for years to come.
Xi is expected to use his firmly secure position within the party to pursue his agenda in full force — by strengthening Beijing’s claim over Taiwan, expanding China’s economic foothold in developing countries, and achieving self-sufficiency in strategic technologies such as semiconductors.
At home, China’s economy has faltered during the pandemic, with high unemployment, low consumption, and slow economic growth putting pressure on a government that stakes much of its legitimacy on promises to deliver prosperity to the population. Between July and September, the country’s GDP grew by 3.9%, according to official data released Monday, which is above many analysts’ expectations but still far below the state’s target of around 5.5%.
China’s National Bureau of Statistics postponed the data’s publication last week ahead of the 20th party congress, reinforcing concerns that Xi’s leadership will put politics before economics.
Monday’s announcement roiled stock markets, with Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index plunging 6%, as well as the Shanghai Composite and the Shenzhen Composite Index both falling by about 2%.
Beijing has also seen increased political resistance from the population, from anti-lockdown protests in Shanghai to widespread mortgage boycotts over delays from real estate developers.
Last week, a man unfurled two large banners from an overpass in Beijing and called President Xi a “dictator” through a megaphone.
Such small-scale demonstrations are not new, but they took place in the capital just before the congress drew enough attention for photos of the stunt to go viral on social media, where an equally swift censorship campaign stamped out any mention of it.