Experts Watch Kim Jong Un's 'Personal Train'

Is the North Korean leader dead? Has his younger sister already seized power?
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 26, 2020 12:55 PM CDT
The Kim Jong Un Rumor Mill Is Churning
In this Monday, March 2, 2020, file photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects a military drill at undisclosed location in North Korea.   (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)

Kim Jong Un is in a "vegetative state" or flat-out dead after a failed heart surgery. Or he's got COVID-19. Or just a sprained ankle. The rumor mill is turning after reports emerged that a Chinese medical team had been dispatched to help North Korea's leader in his time of need, the New York Times reports. With some Asian media outlets reporting the worst news, and Western media taking a mostly careful approach, we look at the latest:

  • 'Shocked': Sen. Lindsey Graham says he would be "shocked" if Kim wasn't "dead or incapacitated" at this point, per the Hill. "You don't let rumors like this go forever or go unanswered in a closed society, which is really a cult, not a country, called North Korea."

  • Kim's train—if it really is his train—could play a role. A US-based project called 38 North, which monitors North Korea, says the train has remained at the "leadership station" at Wonsan since at least Tuesday, per the Guardian. "The train's presence does not prove the whereabouts of the North Korean leader or indicate anything about his health but it does lend weight to reports that Kim is staying at an elite area on the country’s eastern coast," the project says.
  • 'Game changer': North Korea watchers are giving the story a raised eyebrow but won't toll the death knell just yet, the Wall Street Journal reports. "Kim Jong Un's death is a low-probability event," says an Asan Institute research fellow. "But his death would be a game changer."
  • Little sister: In that vein, the Daily Beast looks at Kim's younger sister, 31-year-old Kim Yo Jong, who is apparently feared and respected for her high position in the North Korean government. But is she capable of leading the brutal regime if her brother dies? Fox News calls her "his most likely successor" and Reuters says she "has a firm control of key party functions, setting herself to be the main source of power behind a collective leadership."
  • A half-brother: A rumor flourishing on messaging apps in South Korea has Kim in a coma and Kim Pyong-il, half-brother to Kim's deceased father, already seizing power. The Asia Times reports that Pyong-il was once rising in the ranks before angering the elder Kim and spending time in exile.
  • No worries: Yet South Korea maintains that Kim Jong Un is "alive and well." Moon Chung-in, the South Korean president's top foreign policy adviser, tells CNN that Kim "has been staying in the Wonsan area since April 13. No suspicious movements have so far been detected."
  • And so? Whether any of this matters is open to interpretation. "Regardless of who assumes power, there are no indications that a successor would pursue different domestic or foreign policies," writes Bruce Klingner, an ex-CIA Korea official, per the Washington Times.
(More North Korea stories.)

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