North Korea has not reported a single case of the coronavirus, but something is definitely amiss in the Hermit Kingdom.
North Korean citizens usually celebrate the “Day of the Sun” with a massive parade and huge displays of synchronized movements. It recognizes the founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung.
But the celebration was muted and brief and attended only by “senior officials” of the North Korean government. It did not include the country’s current Dear Leader, Kim Jong-un.
Kim was nowhere to be seen, but a floral wreath with his name on it was left at the mausoleum where the ashes of his father and grandfather are resting.
Naturally, speculation has run rampant as to the whereabouts of Kim, who hasn’t been seen in public since the middle of March. The government news outlet, the Korean Central News Agency, released some undated pictures of Kim, but it’s impossible to say if the leader has health problems himself or is simply laying low while the coronavirus ravages his country.
Others think skipping the ceremonies on Wednesday had more to do with the current dictator trying to distance himself from his family and highlight his own legacy.
“Kim Jong Un wants to break away from the past, as well as the North’s traditional cult of personality,” Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector and researcher in Seoul, told Agence France-Presse.
“He wants to come across and brand himself as a leader who is modern and competent, rather than a descendant of his predecessors,” he told the news agency. “And he wants to gradually tone down the idolization of the two late leaders as it goes against his agenda to brand the North as a ‘normal state.'”
A “normal state”? Maybe he could start by telling the world how many cases of the virus are in his country.
Some North Korean observers theorized that Kim may have skipped the visit over concerns about COVID-19. The Hermit Kingdom has repeatedly said there hasn’t been a single case on its soil, but has implemented social distancing measures.
In late March, the Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun reported that more than 100 North Korean soldiers who were stationed at the border with China died from the virus. The South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo also claimed that Kim was spending “considerable time” away from the capital of Pyongyang due to the virus.
Well, you can’t blame him for being cautious. But if Kim really wants the world to take him seriously, he’s going to have to be more forthcoming during this pandemic. I doubt very much that even if Kim were to fling open the doors of his country and welcome international trade, there’d be many takers until he can prove his government can be trusted.
That’s not likely to happen any time soon. Kim is apparently still trying to consolidate power and get out of the shadow of his father and grandfather. He recently reappointed his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, to the powerful political bureau of the Central Committee — a position she lost after the collapse of the summit with Trump. But lately, she’s taken a more active role in public affairs. She is thought to support more outreach to the world, although don’t expect a Disneyland in Pyongyang anytime soon.
North Korea watchers who read the tea leaves think Kim may try to reduce his father’s and grandfather’s deified legacy for something more realistic. But he’s made no moves to convince ordinary citizens that he himself shouldn’t be seen as a god. That may be a leap most North Koreans will be unable to make.
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