Kim’s Absence Risks Unease Among North Korea’s Elite Ranks

Kim Jong Un hasn’t been seen in public for five weeks with his absence potentially unnerving the North Korean elite whose loyalty he needs to stay in power, and making an erratic regime even more unpredictable.

North and South Korean forces exchanged fire yesterday across one of the world’s most-fortified borders for the second time in less than a week. The firefight came hours after Kim skipped an annual visit to a family mausoleum for the first time since coming to power in late 2011, further fueling speculation about his health and grip on power.

“Kim’s health problem will ramp up feelings of insecurity among the North Korean leadership and make them react more nervously,” Cheong Seong Chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute near Seoul, said in an e-mail. “Should he remain secluded longer or have trouble performing his job, agitation within the leadership will inevitably follow while his control weakens and senior officials just pretend to follow him.”

Kim hasn’t been seen since Sept. 3, when he attended a concert, and has appeared to walk with a limp in recent months. North Korea’s state television said on Sept. 25 that he was experiencing “discomfort.” While the elite who live in the capital Pyongyang with generous housing and food allowances may be seeking to decipher the euphemism, regular North Koreans may be more indifferent to Kim’s absence.

“They probably couldn’t care less if their leaders appear or not,” Ahn Chan Il, a North Korean defector who heads the Seoul-based World Institute for North Korea Studies, said by phone. “If he appears, it’s fine. If he doesn’t, it’s fine, too, as long as it doesn’t cause economic trouble for them. But it’s different for the elite, whose doubts will grow.”

Father’s Absence

Pressure may be building on Kim to make an appearance, Ahn said, as his absence has fanned debate about him being sidelined by gout or diabetes or being overthrown in a coup. It has added to concerns outside North Korea that the regime’s military chiefs may attempt some sort of provocation to unite the elite, Cheong at the Sejong Institute said.

Kim’s late father, Kim Jong Il, disappeared for more than two months in 2008 after suffering what South Korea and the U.S. believed to be a stroke. In the following year North Korea fired a long-range rocket, left international disarmament talks and conducted its second underground nuclear test.

South Korea yesterday damped speculation Kim Jong Un’s absence from public view signaled a power shift.

‘Ruling Normally’

“It appears Kim Jong Un is ruling normally,” Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong Cheol said at a briefing yesterday in Seoul. The ministry based its view on greetings Kim sent to President Park Geun Hye via a senior delegation that visited the South on Oct. 4 and the fact the North has been reporting on “matters related to Kim’s leadership.”

Three days after that high-level visit, the two countries’ navies traded warning shots near their disputed maritime border in the Yellow Sea. Yesterday North Korea fired multiple rounds across the border from what is believed to be a 14.5mm heavy machine gun, prompting the South to return fire, Seoul’s Defense Ministry said. No damage was reported from either incident.

The exchange of fire will probably lead to cancellation of a meeting of high-level officials the North and South agreed to hold later this month or early in November, Yonhap News reported today, citing a commentary on Uriminzokkiri, a website operated by the North’s state-run Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea.

Missed Parliament

Kim, who regularly appeared in state media overseeing everything from missile launches to grain harvests, missed a session of parliament on Sept. 25. South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported Sept. 30 that he was hospitalized after surgery on both ankles to address an injury sustained during field supervisions in June.

“The condition of the North Korean leader is the domestic affair of North Korea, and we don’t comment on that,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters yesterday in Beijing. “China and North Korea have maintained friendly exchanges at various levels.”

“Nothing yet indicates there’s a big problem with Kim Jong Un’s absolute power,” Kim Jung Bong, who served in South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and now teaches political science at Hanzhong University, said by phone. “He probably had ankle surgery, and if he doesn’t show up, that means he’s still recovering.”

Intense Scrutiny

The U.S., South Korea and even China, which has been North Korea’s biggest benefactor, monitor military activity in the country for indications of political instability such as a coup or an assassination. U.S. and South Korean defense officials say they haven’t seen abnormal or noticeable changes by the Korean People’s Army to back such scenarios.

Kim, believed to be about 30, is the subject of intense scrutiny because he exerts dynastic control over 1.2 million troops and a nuclear arms program. He has spent his time in power purging senior officials and installing loyalists to top positions.

“At least in the short term, no major problems will shake the stability of the North Korean regime,” Cheong from the Sejong Institute said. “On top of a monarchical political culture that justifies the third-generation succession, Kim Jong Un has replaced core officials with his confidants and removed anyone who’s not loyal to him since Kim Jong Il’s death.”

‘No Problem’

Speculation over who is in control escalated last week when Hwang, the top political officer in the North’s military, and two other officials made a surprise visit to the South for talks that ended in a pledge to improve ties. South Korea’s Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl Jae said on KBS Television on Oct. 5 that Kim Yang Gon, the North’s top policymaker on ties with the South, told him during the visit there was “no problem at all” with the leader’s health.

Most attempts at insight on North Korea are made by defectors or nongovernmental rights organizations that maintain contact with North Koreans through illegal mobile phones or USB drives that are smuggled across the Chinese border.

Their reports can be highly unreliable, said Kim from Hanzhong University. He cited a rumor last month that a coup led by North Korean military officer Jo Myong Rok toppled Kim. Jo has been dead since 2010.

Still, defectors have broken some of the most important news about North Korea in recent decades, such as the great famine in the 1990s that killed an estimated 2 million people and the botched 2009 currency overhaul that sent the North Korean won plunging 96 percent.

High Stakes

Should young Kim die suddenly, the stakes are high because there is no clear path of succession. There’s been no mention in state media of the young Kim and his wife Ri having children. That raises the prospect of powerful figures in the military taking over and struggling to claim the divine right of leadership that the Kim dynasty has cultivated.

The young Kim consolidated his grip on power by purging senior officials, including the removal in July 2012 of Chief of the General Staff Ri Yong Ho, who guided him in the succession process. In December, Kim removed his uncle and de facto deputy, Jang Song Thaek, on charges of factionalism and graft, and then had him executed.

“With all of the purges of hundreds of officials in the last several years, really there is no sense as to who the next leader would be if there is a sudden departure by Kim,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based policy research group.

“No one knows who would get the golden ring of power.”

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