North Korea

Kim Jong-un in a coma, says South Korean diplomat

Fresh speculation about the North Korean leader's health has been stirred after Chang Song-min suggested Kim is in a coma with his sister poised to take power.

Kim Jong-un in a coma, says South Korean diplomat
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Rumours concerning the health of Kim Jong-un have been circulating afresh after South Korean diplomat Chang Song-min suggested the North Korean leader is in a coma. Widespread reports last week stated that Kim had delegated several matters of state to his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, amid speculation that the Supreme Leader is suffering from a serious health condition.

I assess him to be in a coma, but his life has not ended,” Chang was reported as telling South Korean media.

The condition of the North Korean leader has been carefully scrutinized after he was absent from the public eye earlier this year for a period of around three weeks. However, reports that Kim has undergone heart surgery were subsequently rubbished by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and backed by the appearance of Kim at a factory opening shortly afterwards.

Kim's health under close scrutiny

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un addresses a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in North Korea, in this photo released August 20, 2020, by North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang.

It is not the first time the North Korean leader has been supposedly incapacitated. In 2014, Kim reappeared after an absence of around six weeks leaning on a cane, leading to speculation that he was suffering from gout. North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA, simply reported that Kim was suffering from an “uncomfortable physical condition.”

Kim assumed power following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011 and has been at times a conciliatory figure in North Korean diplomacy. In 2018 and 2019 he held summits with US President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to discuss the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, although those talks proved inconclusive.

Kim Yo-jong waiting in the wings

The matter of North Korean succession has long been a point of international interest. Kim is believed to have three children with his wife Ri Sol-ju but his sister, Kim Yo-jong, is widely regarded as the successor to the Kim dynasty.

South Korea's intelligence agency believes that Kim Yo-jong is serving as her brother’s "de facto second-in-command" but has not necessarily been designated his successor.

Believed to be in her early 30s, Kim Yo-jong is the leader's only close relative with a public role in politics, recently spearheading a new, tougher campaign to put pressure on South Korea.

Ha Tae-keung, an opposition party lawmaker on South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence committee, told reporters that Kim was helping to run the regime with mandated authority from her brother.

"The bottom line is that Kim Jong Un still holds absolute power, but has turned over a bit more of his authority compared to the past," Ha said, following a closed-door briefing by the South's National Intelligence Service.

"Kim Yo Jong is a de facto second-in-command," Ha added in a transcript of remarks seen by Reuters.

Kim and Trump talks

More authority on economic and military policy has also been delegated to several other senior officials, although at a lower level, possibly to reduce strain on Kim Jong-un as well as help him avoid blame for any failures, Ha said.

Kim Yo-jong won fame ahead of her brother's 2019 summit with Trump in Vietnam, when her efforts to ensure everything went well included holding an ashtray for the North Korean leader at a train station on his journey.

Her prominence in the campaign against South Korea this year highlighted a substantive policy role that goes beyond being merely Kim's assistant, analysts say.

She issued her first public statements to spray criticism at the neighbouring nation, and the North's state media portrayed her as playing a decision-making role.

In July, she offered personal views on diplomacy with the United States in an unusual statement in state media, saying her brother had given her special permission to watch recordings of that country's Independence Day celebrations.

When rumours and speculation arose in April about Kim Jong-un's health, his sister was seen a possible placeholder to take over the family dynasty until one of Kim's children is old enough.

Kim Yo-jong has been absent, however, from several recent high-level meetings, such as a plenary gathering of the ruling Workers' Party on Wednesday, said NK News, a Seoul-based website that tracks North Korea.

That has stirred some speculation about a possible demotion.