This is a breaking news story and of course a difficult one, given the exceptional dearth of reliable information from North Korea. Multiple news sites in Washington confirm they are receiving reports on it from U.S. officials, however. There appears to be something to it; the question is exactly what.
CNN reported a short time ago that Kim Jong Un was said by an unnamed U.S. official to be “in grave danger after surgery.” The CNN report indicated that this came from U.S. intelligence.
CNN says another U.S. official tells them “the concerns about Kim’s health are credible but the severity is hard to assess.”
Kim Jong-Un reportedly had heart surgery on 12 April and has been in recovery in the 8 days since. He missed appearing at the official commemoration of his grandfathers’s (Kim Il-Sung) birthday on 15 April.
Fox News has much the same information, but doesn’t attribute it to U.S. intelligence monitoring. Says Fox: “Sources told Fox News that the White House is aware of the reports of Kim’s health, but there is no confirmation.”
All kinds of speculation is rampant in the media, both among the cable news talking heads and on social media. OAN says officials have told them a Chinese doctor was called in to attend Kim Jong-Un, and ended up infecting him with COVID-19.
That’s possible, although the likelihood of U.S. intelligence making such a disclosure with confidence is low. I suggest not running with it. It’s just something to be aware of. Apparently someone wants to have the “disclosure” out there, at any rate, so it’s not worthless as a data point.
BREAKING: Multiple US officials tell @OANN that Kim Jong Un caught COVID19 from a Chinese doctor flown in to help with his heart valve surgery. He appears to be in stable condition for now.
— Jack Posobiec, IWO (@JackPosobiec) April 21, 2020
Obviously the implications of this would be significant if Kim Jong-Un’s health were at such grave risk that he might not (or did not) survive. South Korea has been downplaying the matter, declining to add to the speculation frenzy. Rather than rewrite it at unnecessary length, I’ll just post my tweet on that point.
South Korea's not going to give out a play-by-play. This is a massive nat'l security situation for them. They'll consolidate their position for response, AND their response, first. No tipping their hand thru press releases; all managed comms externally & back-channel coord. https://t.co/ri83oS4Iu8
— J.E. Dyer (@OptimisticCon) April 21, 2020
Beyond that, there is limited utility in spinning out scenarios from a position of ignorance. We don’t really know how bad it is, although if we’re hearing about it at all, it’s legitimate to assume Kim’s life is, in fact, at stake. It’s CNN giving the worst report of Kim’s health (“grave danger’), which is a red flag for me. CNN is one of several outlets that make themselves the path of least resistance for “leaks” targeting the Trump administration’s foreign policy. Perhaps U.S. intelligence thinks it’s as bad as CNN says. Perhaps not.
That said, if it is that bad, and Kim may not survive, it’s not actually obvious what would happen next. Most mainstream media have come out speculating about Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong. Maybe. It may depend on who from outside North Korea can manage the fanciest footwork. Don’t discount the possibility that this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to influence the successor regime in Pyongyang and set history on a new course. President Trump has already set the key condition for that: decoupling North Korean relations in general from the exclusive brokerage of Beijing.
Nothing like that would be done in the open, at least not initially. But the U.S. has the friends for it in the neighborhood. There’s never a time so unpropitious for correcting the longstanding situation on the Korean peninsula that it shouldn’t be tried.
South Korea’s Moon Jae-In has a very solid governing mandate after a massive victory for the Democrats in last week’s election; I don’t have enough of a sense of him to predict whether he’s up to the job of grabbing the reins and going for reunification. Any such move has to be spearheaded by Seoul. They’ll keep their cards close to the vest, and they won’t want to aggressively alienate China, even if they have the courage, with U.S. backing, to act independently.
At any rate, it’s early days yet. We’ll see where this goes.