Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are now in Asia for discussions with their South Korean and Japanese opposites. US/South Korea military exercises are now underway in South Korea, and Pyongyang has resumed its cryptic rhetoric. The stage appears set for North Korea to conduct a weapons test to check the waters, so to speak, and to serve as a reminder to the US about what the future could hold if economic sanctions are not lifted. Ove the past 15 years or so, North Korea has traditionally conducted weapons tests and other types of provocative actions in the early days of new US and South Korean administrations. In light of the events mentioned above, and the fact that the Biden administration is only two months old, a weapons test by North Korea now would not come as a surprise.
On Monday, Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong released a rather cryptic statement. “We take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off [gun] powder smell in our land. If it [the U.S.] wants to sleep in peace for the coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.” The statement is the first official North Korean reaction since Joe Biden took office. The Biden administration’s attempts to resume talks with North Korea have so far been unsuccessful. Pyongyang has been radio silent, so to speak. However, with senior US administration officials now in the region to discuss, among other topics, North Korea, Kim Jong Un might decide this is a convenient time to stage a weapons test. A move which will serve to inform the Biden administration that more work is needed before discussions between the two nations can pick up again.
Speculation on the wellbeing of North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un resurfaced over the weekend, prompting a renewed death watch on Kim, and concerns that a power transition could be in the works. It began with reports from South Korean intelligence last week that Kim Jong Un had delegated some power and authority to his sister Kim Yo Jong. The reports strengthened the notion that Un’s sister is being groomed to succeed him at some point by the end of the year. Then over the weekend Chang Song-min, a former aide to South Korea’s late president Kim Dae-jung made the bold allegation that Kim is in a coma and his sister is in fact preparing to take full control of the government. Chang claims that a full succession of power has not yet been completed and Kim Yo Jong is being positioned to prevent a vacuum from forming when Kim Jong Un finally expires.
Back in April Kim’s health condition was in question following an extended period of him not being seen in public. In the absence of hard information speculation soared. Rumors of Kim having suffered a heart attack, stroke, or even COVID popped up daily from many ‘reliable sources.’ There was even concern he had died, leaving North Korea rudderless. Finally, Kim was seen in public, speculation disappeared, and the world moved on.
A few months later and here we are again. On the verge of another episode of North Korean Soap Opera.
To be fair, there is something going on in the North. The problem is that when it comes to North Korea’s internal politics there are very few analysts, and experts able to accurately read the tea leaves.
They say that no news is good news, but North Korea is an exception to the rule. In the case of the secretive, hermit kingdom no news is never good. Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s ruler, has entirely disappeared from public view in the last few weeks. He missed a pair of high-profile national holidays, fueling speculation that Kim is not well. Reports surfaced contending he suffered complications following a cardiovascular procedure earlier this month and is now in a vegetative state. Next came reports of a Chinese medical team being dispatched to North Korea to help Kim Jong Un, further adding to concerns about the present state of his health. While much of this has been happening, the South Korean government continues to state its belief that Kim is alive and well and nothing out of the ordinary is happening up north.
The latest morsel in the juicy, ongoing drama is a note purportedly penned by the Supreme Leader himself giving thanks to construction workers and officials at the Wonsan-Kalma tourist resort. North Korean media reported news of the message less than a day after Kim’s personal train was spotted on satellite photographs in the Wonsan area.
Amid all of this, panic buying has apparently gripped Pyongyang with residents stocking up on various items from liquor to canned fish. Given that access to retail stores in Pyongyang is largely limited to government officials and their family members, this suggests that Kim is either deceased or incapacitated and an internal struggle for power is either underway or about to begin. There have also been reports of helicopters flying low over Pyongyang, and train service around the country has been disrupted. This could also suggest a power struggle is taking place behind the scenes.
For what it’s worth, my personal opinion is that Kim Jong Un is either no longer among the living or is severely incapacitated. It is widely believed that his sister Kim Yo Jong has been groomed to succeed him, but there are other possible candidates as well. Right now, a struggle for the crown, so to speak, is probably underway in Pyongyang. Until it is complete, and a new leader selected, I expect no hard news to come out of North Korea.