North Korea is the most sealed-off country in the world and it is difficult to verify what happens within its borders. Crime stories, secrets, mysteries, leaks, rumors, unconfirmed reports and often fully-fledged fake news frequently emerge and are hard to sort out. It is hard for anybody who does not live in North Korea to verify what happens within its borders. It is for this reason, in other words the chronic lack of confirmed reports, that matters relating to the ”Hermit Kingdom” should always be treated with caution and skepticism.
Manipulating the Western View of North Korea
The North Korean political system has learned quickly to leverage the western media’s atavistic hunger for news to mock their way of thinking. Over the years the script has always been the same: beyond the 38th parallel something strange is happening and as nobody can go there and check what is going on foreign journalists make assumption after assumption. At the end of the day, after all sorts of suppositions have been put forward, everything returns to normal and the supposed oddity proves to be a nothing burger.
This is exactly what happened recently in the case of Kim Jong Un. North Korea’s leader had disappeared from the scene for 21 days before returning to the spotlight at the inauguration of a fertilizer factory. No, it is not the first time that Pyongyang has left so many people at a loss. In the past there have been other mysterious episodes that have given rise to all kinds of speculation.
The Mysterious ‘Death’ of Kim Il Sung
The first thriller worthy of note dates back to 1986 when virtually all the international press wrote that Kim Jong Un’s grandfather and former leader of the country Kim Il Sung had been assassinated. The Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun endorsed the theory that the grandfather of the current North Korean President ”had been killed by high-ranking officers of the armed forces following an alleged pro-Chinese conspiracy by members of the army opposed to the rapprochement between North Korea and the USSR.”
There were various versions of the supposed attack: an assault on the presidential train replete with submachine guns and bombs, an attack on the leader’s armored car, a shootout and even a killing that occurred during an inspection. The North Korean diplomats abroad immediately denied the reconstructions, branding them pure fabrications.
In South Korea the Chosun Ilbo newspaper went further, writing that the loudspeakers on the border between the two Koreas had confirmed the death of Kim Il Sung and that along the border North Korean flags were flying at half-mast as a sign of mourning. The denials issued by Japanese and American sources were of little use: the world thought that Kim’s grandfather was now dead.
Shortly after the international media announcement, Kim Il Sung appeared alive and well at Pyongyang airport where he greeted a Mongolian delegation visiting the country. The South Korean newspaper Chosun did not publish a correction regarding the false news that had been spread. However, the newspaper did finally apologize for the story last month on the centenary of its founding.
The Uncle and Aunt Who Disappeared
As regards more recent times, it is worth focusing on another mystery worthy of note. Jang Song Thaek was — or, according to some, still is — Kim Jong Un’s uncle. In his political career he has held, among other things, the prestigious position of Vice-Chairman of the National Defence Committee. Experts said he should have led the peaceful transition of power from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un. In other words, after the death of Kim’s father, Song Thaek should have prepared the current North Korean leader’s entry into politics.
In realty things went quite differently because Kim Jong Un came to power immediately after his father’s death in December, 2011. Traces of his uncle were lost in November 2013, when, as Daily Nk writes, he was arrested during a Politburo meeting and relieved of all his posts. He would later be tried for planning a coup and executed in the same year at the age of 67. The international media added a rather macabre detail: according to unspecified sources, Kim allegedly had his relative torn to pieces by dogs. Exaggeration or reality? Almost all experts are inclined to support the first option.
In any case, Jong Song Thaek magically reappeared a few years later in a photo released by a documentary broadcast by North Korean state television.
Could it have been a mistake by those who had edited the documentary or a sign that he intended to rehabilitate Kim’s uncle? But above all: was Kim’s uncle really killed or is he still alive?
There are many doubts because, among other things, Kim Kyong Hui, Song Thaek’s wife and Kim’s aunt, received similar treatment. The sister of Kim Jong Il — father of the current leader — disappeared from the scene in 2013, only to reappear in January 2020. In a photo published by North Korean media, the lady was sitting next to her nephew in a Pyongyang theatre on the occasion of new year celebrations.
The Assassination of Kim’s brother
Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, was killed with nerve gas on February 13, 2017 at Kuala Lumpur Airport in Malaysia. Thanks to the video surveillance footage, the local authorities discovered his killers, two women, Doan Thi Huong and Siti Aisha.
According to the reconstruction of the investigators the killers of Jong Nam caught up with the man at the airport of the Malaysian capital where they threw a deadly substance in his face. Kim’s half-brother died about ten minutes after the actions of the two women. He reported it to airport authorities, but his death occurred in an ambulance while rescue workers tried to transport the prominent North Korean to the hospital. Pyongyang immediately said that it was not responsible for the incident.
For their part, the two women arrested claimed they did not know what substance they had thrown in Jong Nam’s face and explained that the action was supposed to be a TV prank. In the next few days, other people were arrested, including North Koreans. In 2017, the Wall Street Journal revealed a sensational piece of information: Kim Jong Nam was a CIA source but did not add further details. This story too will probably remain an unsolved mystery.
The ‘Death’ of Kim Jong Un
The latest episode concerns Kim Jong Un who reappeared on May 1 after his absence had triggered rumours that he might have been seriously ill or even in a vegetative state. What happened? The leader disappeared from public view on 11 April. Twenty days later, the North Korean state media gave news of the President on the occasion of Labor Day.
North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) claims that Kim attended a ceremony for the completion of a fertilizer factory near Pyongyang with other senior officials, including his sister Kim Yo Jong. Videos and photos show the President wearing a black suit and constantly smiling, walking around the buildings, applauding and cutting a huge red ribbon with some scissors delivered by his sister Kim Yo Jong. Speculation about his health spread across the world after Kim failed to attend the birthday celebrations of his late grandfather on April 15.
Yet despite his appearance, numerous doubts remain. Some claim that photos and videos circulated by Pyongyang are bogus while others speculate that Kim may be alive and well but that he may have undergone an operation. Like so many other things in North Korea the exact truth remains — for now — a mystery.