If any of the speculation about Kim Jong Un being in ill health — or worse — proves to be true, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency wouldn’t be the first to know about it. No spy agency in the world would.
Theories about the young North Korean dictator’s prolonged absence from public view have underscored the impossibility of penetrating the totalitarian regime’s inner circles, according to former and current officials who have spied on the reclusive nation for the U.S. and South Korea.
Under the cult of personality that surrounds Kim’s family, those around him must demonstrate absolute loyalty, making it almost impossible for intelligence agencies to cultivate human assets for insight.
Information-gathering on the nuclear-armed regime instead relies on what can be gleaned from advanced satellite imagery or signals intelligence, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence sources and methods.
“Even if China, South Korea and the U.S. could penetrate with air, human and military intelligence assets, they are able to get only marginal information about the country,” David Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, said in a phone interview. “It’s very, very difficult for us to know what Kim Jong Un is thinking, what he’s doing, even where he is and even to gain insight into his intentions.”
So far, the main public clues have been a report in the rigidly controlled state media that Kim has been suffering “discomfort,” and a video of him limping that produced speculation the rotund ruler might have gout or suffered broken ankles. Beyond that, there’s only the simple fact of his absence from public view for more than five weeks.
State media gave no indication as of 9 a.m. local time that Kim showed up for today’s anniversary celebration of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party. Kim Jong Un still appears to be in charge of the country, South Korea Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong Cheol said at a briefing in Seoul this morning. The ministry has not been able to confirm the state of Kim’s health, Lim said.
Kim probably didn’t visit a Pyongyang mausoleum where the bodies of his father and grandfather lie in state as he had done at midnight the previous two years, South Korea’s Yonhap News said, citing a lack of official reports from the North.
The U.S., South Korea and even China, which has been North Korea’s biggest benefactor, monitor unusual 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.
The country’s system, devised by state founder Kim Il Sung, the current leader’s grandfather, and perfected by his son and successor Kim Jong Il, is “designed to prevent conspiracy, designed to prevent coups,” said Maxwell, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel who served in Korea, Japan and the Philippines. “And the personal loyalty aspect of it is what prevents outsiders from getting in.”
Most attempts at such 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 in and out across the Chinese border.
Such hit-or-miss information only fans speculation that can’t be confirmed. When Kim Jong Un’s wife Ri Sol Ju was absent from public view for almost two months in 2012, poorly sourced reports flooded social media claiming she’d fallen out of Kim’s favor because of something unsavory in her past.
Kim Jung Bong, who served in South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and now teaches political science at Hanzhong University, call the constant rumors “a real headache” for intelligence officers seeking credible evidence. He cited a rumor last month that a coup led by North Korean military officer Jo Myong Rok had toppled Kim. Jo died in 2010.
The diplomats, spies and human-rights activists who lament such poorly sourced and vetted information are also the biggest consumers of it.
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 or the botched 2009 currency overhaul that sent the North Korean won plunging 96 percent.
South Korean intelligence officials, who can’t be identified due to policy, often joke bitterly that they’re in the fiction industry, in which everyone will believe anything about North Korea. One senior official once lauded the country for its ability to reduce the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies to interpreting state propaganda videos and official statements.
The starkest evidence of North Korea’s opacity was the December 2011 death of Kim’s father Kim Jong Il, whose fatal heart attack was hidden from the world for two days before state media announced the news.
At least there was a line of succession then. After suffering a debilitating stroke in October 2008, Kim Jong Il had three years to prepare a hereditary succession and had three sons and two daughters from which to choose.
Should young Kim suffer a sudden death, the stakes are higher 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 had 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,” said Klingner, a former head of the CIA’s Korea branch. “There would be concerns over factional fighting, loss of control of nuclear weapons, and perhaps North Korea lashing out at its neighbors. So even though it doesn’t look like North Korea’s on the edge of a political overthrow now, in a way it’s one bullet or one heart attack away from a crisis.”
The U.S. and South Korea have military contingency plans for possible scenarios in North Korea, including regime collapse, an invasion of South Korea and provocations short of all-out war.
Operations Plan 1527 maps a course of action for U.S. and South Korean troops in response to a military invasion. Concept Plan 5029 outlines six to 10 “less serious” scenarios, including regime collapse. In addition to these plans, which are rehearsed and updated yearly, the U.S. and South Korea installed a combined response plan to counter any provocations from the North.
“It’s not that we’re not prepared,” said Maxwell of Georgetown University. “The alliance has been preparing for some time. If there’s a sudden change in the regime, then the question is one, will we know it; two, when will we know it; and then of course what actions will we take?”
While the world would be better off without the Kim regime, Klingner of the Heritage Foundation said, “there is concern about the ramifications if there is a sudden collapse.”