Just as the title suggests, Kim Jong-un, the third supreme overlord of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, has disappeared. To be precise, he has not been seen in public media since Sept. 3, 2014. As the revered figurehead of North Korea, Kim Jong-un has appeared onscreen for almost every major event since his ascent to leadership. Even in the absence of public events, his personal life is broadcasted throughout the whole nation to reinforce his “dignified image” to his people. Regardless of ridicule from the rest of the world, his media presence has traditionally been one of the ways by which he maintains his position at the top.
However, for all the public can tell, he is gone. Aside from high-ranking officials in North Korea, no one really knows what has happened to him. Consequently, all we have is wild speculation. So far, there are two major theories regarding Kim Jong-un’s disappearance: the illness theory and the coup theory.
From his physical appearance alone, most could guess that he does not have a healthy lifestyle. Kim Jong-un is about 5’8” and in early 2014, experts speculated that he was roughly 100kg (220lbs). However, since the execution of his uncle, Jang Sung-taek, he has been consuming significant amounts of food and alcohol to relieve his stress. Naturally, with such unhealthy consumption habits, he has gained a lot of weight — approximately 20kg (44lb) — in a very short period of time. Also, he has been a heavy smoker since his youth. Such a combination of extreme obesity, alcohol consumption and smoking is essentially a one-way ticket to a hospital.
Further supporting the illness theory, when Kim Jong-un appeared on the 20th Commemoration of his dear grandfather in July 2014, he seemed very uncomfortable even as he was walking. Additionally, while delivering the New Year Salutation of 2014, he seemed to be panting every four seconds. From a symptom alone, no one can specifically say what health issue he has, but it seems that he may have quite a serious problem.
Based on facts alone, it does not seem far-fetched to say that Kim Jong-un is unable to make an appearance because of his physical condition. The puzzle here is the seriousness of his condition. As of today, he has been gone for over a month. It is true that a chronic condition definitely could disable him. Yet a month is a little too long for him to be gone considering his role within the media in North Korea. Now, I cannot decisively say he has a grave illness that may threaten his life, but nevertheless, the longer this absence continues, the more likely it seems that Kim Jong-un will not come back.
Another prominent theory behind his disappearance is a coup within the government. The possibility for this coup definitely exists. Many members of the Supreme People’s Assembly and Military Forces are elders who have served in their position for decades. Compared to them, Kim Jong-un is just a fresh politician. If any officials wished to seize control over the nation, this year would be the perfect opportunity to rise up as a result of Kim Jong-un’s apparent absence.
The suspicions of a coup amplified when the alleged second in power, Hwang Pyong-so, suddenly visited South Korea at the closing ceremony of the Inchon Asian Games. Considering his position and seniority, he has no reason to visit South Korea unless he has some specific goals to achieve. If the coup theory is correct, his apparent goal would be showing his face to the world to announce that he will be the next “big head.” Furthermore, it is doubtful that Kim Jong-un sent him. Firstly, for the head of the state, it is never good when the second in power receives major attention, especially if the head of the state is absent. Also, Hwang Pyong-so’s position has nothing to do with sports, so what purpose could it serve beyond publicity? Lastly, he did not visit South Korea to have political discussion with any South Korean officials, merely to show his face. Thus, it is highly suspicious and seems less like an innocent visit and more like a political power-play.
Again, Hwang Pyong-so’s visit alone is not enough to fully support the coup theory and, even if the coup happened only in the Supreme Assembly, any armed conflict should definitely be visible from the outside. And so far, no notable conflict has been reported by the media. If Kim Jong-un has no allies in politics, it may be possible to overthrow him without a fight; however, the mass purges within the government prove that Kim Jong-un actually has a solid faction supporting him. For instance, a year after the succession, Kim Jong-un successfully purged Ri Yong-ho, one of the authority figures in military, who might have posed a threat to his rule. Furthermore, Kim Jong-un also prevented the government from falling apart after the purge of Jang Sung-taek, the right hand man of Kim Jong-il. If overthrowing Kim Jong-un was that easy, he would have ended up in the pit long time ago. Even if he is just a mere puppet of the faction, there is no real reason to pull him down from his seat of power.
I cannot make any hasty conclusion based on this information alone, but if Kim Jong-un truly is very ill, it may be the turn of history in Asia.