North Korean Defectors Walk Back Comments About North Korean Leader’s Health

A leading North Korean defector apologized for saying that Kim Jong Un was seriously ill after the North Korean leader finally resurfaced last week.


Kim's Photos opening a fertilizer factory came after an unusual three-week absence from state media, which had sparked intense speculation about his health. Adding to the uncertainty, North and South Korea exchanged fire on the weekend.

Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, said Kim was so sick that he couldn't take it. Thae, who defected to South Korea in 2016 and was elected to his National Assembly last month, said, “I am aware that one of the reasons why many of you voted for me as a legislator is with the expectations of accurate analysis and projections on North Korean issues. I feel the guilt and the heavy responsibility. Whatever the reasons, I apologize to everyone.

Ji Seong-ho, another high-profile North Korean defector who was also recently elected to the National Assembly, said last week that he was 99% sure that Kim had died after cardiovascular surgery.


"I have reflected on myself for the past few days and felt the weight of my position," Ji said in a statement after Kim’s reappearance. "As a public figure, I will behave carefully from now on."


Drew Angerer / Getty Images, Pool / Getty Images

Thae Yong-ho and Ji Seong-ho



Global interest in Kim's health increased when the Daily NK, based in South Korea reported on April 21, he underwent cardiac surgery and was recovering in a village outside Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

The Daily NK, which draws on the work of North Korean defectors and their networks, originally cited several sources, but later revised it to just one in a correction. His story was quickly told by international news agencies, including CNN, who reported Kim was in "grave danger", citing American officials. It seemed explain why Kim did not attend a big celebration of your grandfather Kim Il Sung's birthday days before.

Weeks of speculation about Kim's health were followed by everyone from US and South Korean intelligence officials to the inexplicably celebrity gossip site TMZ, who reported that Kim was really dead.

The story of TMZ, which cited Chinese and Japanese media, reflects the fascination with news about North Korea's ultra-secret leadership.

Jung Yeon-je / Getty Images

A woman goes through a television newscast in Seoul, showing a photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attending a ceremony to mark the completion of a fertilizer factory.

"When North Koreans are not confirming or denying anything, many people take that silence as confirmation of several different theories, rather than waiting for real facts," said Jenny Town, managing editor of the think tank in Washington, DC 38 North .

The stakes for Kim's whereabouts are high. North Korea, with nuclear weapons, has been ruled by his family for three generations, with power concentrated heavily at the top. This means that the death or health problems of a leader can cause instability, and questions about who will succeed Kim, who is not thought to have adult children, remain open.

38 North published a report indicating that a train believed to belong to Kim was seen at his Wonsan complex in eastern North Korea, which could have indicated that Kim was recovering from surgery there. The report was widely publicized in the press, but satellite images also have their limitations, pointed out Town itself. On the one hand, there is no way to know if Kim was on the train or even check if it is the right train.

On the other hand, North Korea is aware that the outside world uses satellite images to monitor it.

"We can see where the train is," said Ken Gause, North Korea's leadership expert at CNA, a research and analysis organization in the Washington, DC area. "We also know that the North Koreans know that we are seeing these things, so we are seeing what the North Koreans want us to see."

Kim previously disappeared in 2014 for more than a month and then emerged with a slight limp. He reportedly underwent ankle surgery and, in showing him with a limp, was probably the first time the North Korean state media referred to the health of a leader.

Saul Loeb / Getty Images

Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump shake hands after a signing ceremony during their U.S.-North Korea summit in June 2018.

Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, also disappeared for even longer periods, without explanation. A book by a Japanese expert even claimed that Kim Jong Il died in 2003 and was replaced by a double body.

It would have been easy for Kim to dispel rumors of his death, simply by showing his face in public. But it is easier said than done, analysts say.

On the one hand, the health of the country's top leadership is a big taboo. North Korean propaganda portrays the country's leaders as demigods.

“Health is one of the most sensitive issues. This has potential repercussions for the stability of the regime, ”said Rachel Lee, an analyst from North Korea who previously worked for the US government.

Therefore, if Kim was ill or recovering from surgery, it is unlikely that he would have appeared in public. The North Korean state media, however, published articles about Kim's activities during his absence, including noting that he had sent a letter to the president of Cuba.

Lee noted that while North Korea has been quick to respond when it comes to foreign policy crises – for example, statements made by President Donald Trump – the same is not necessarily true when it comes to internal affairs. This is especially true when it comes to a subject as sensitive as health.

When Kim Jong Il died, the US intelligence services would have discovered this only when the North Korean state media reported his death. In the end, analysts say, watching North Korean state media – both by explicit announcements and by implicit clues – is probably the best way to learn about the country's leadership.

"We may be obsessed with everything we want, but they only tell us when they are ready to tell us and how they want to tell us," said 38 North & # 39; s Town.

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