North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was seen in public for the first time in 20 days, ending speculation that he may have been seriously ill or dead.
Kim was seen cutting a ribbon and walking around a new fertilizer plant near Pyongyang. He was accompanied by his sister, Kim Yo-jong, who many North Korea watchers believe would take over for him in the event of his untimely demise.
State media showed videos and photos of Kim wearing a black Mao suit and constantly smiling, walking around facilities, applauding, cutting a huge red ribbon with a scissor handed by his sister, and smoking inside and outside of buildings while talking with other officials.
Seemingly thousands of workers, many of them masked, stood in lines at the massive complex, roaring in celebration and releasing balloons into the air. A sign installed on a stage where Kim sat with other senior officials read: “Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory; Completion Ceremony; May 1, 2020.”
We’ll probably never know why Kim disappeared but the most logical explanation is that he was trying to avoid exposure to the coronavirus. After North Korea couldn’t hide the extent of the pandemic anymore, Kim disappeared.
There were no clear signs that Kim was in discomfort. He was shown moving without a walking stick, like the one he used in 2014 when he was recovering from a presumed ankle surgery. However, he was also seen riding a green electric cart, which appeared similar to a vehicle he used in 2014.
It was Kim’s first public appearance since April 11, when he presided over a ruling Workers’ Party meeting to discuss the coronavirus and reappoint his sister as an alternate member of the powerful decision-making Political Bureau of the party’s Central Committee. That move confirmed her substantial role in the government.
Of course, since this is North Korea, there was plenty of speculation about a political crisis leading to Kim’s disappearance. But South Korean observers saw no sudden or unexpected moves in the leadership or military, leading to the conclusion that Kim was still in power.
However, Kim’s absence once again raised the issue of his succession and who would replace him in a nation with no established law of succession.
Kim just elevated his sister to a powerful position in the Central Committee, but Kim’s preference for her might not mean much among the country’s male-dominated leadership.
If he’s suddenly unable to rule, some analysts said his sister would be installed as leader to continue Pyongyang’s heredity dynasty that began after World War II.
But others question whether core members of North Korea’s elite, mostly men in their 60s or 70s, would find it hard to accept a young and untested female leader who lacks military credentials. Some predict a collective leadership or violent power struggles.
An unstable, dictatorial, secret regime would be trouble enough, but add nuclear weapons and the ICBMs to carry them to the mix and you’d have a global crisis if Kim were to disappear for good. You’d think he’d have a long life ahead of him at age 36. But his lifestyle, his diet, and general health appear to be working against that.