Everyone knows of North Korea’s intense ability to deflect all outside knowledge and to remain illusively secret, but what may be less well known is how the U.S. observes North Korea despite its secrecy. Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of North Korea, was not seen publicly for over half a month as of April 11th, and discussions about his health started spreading like wildfire on April 15th when he missed the national birthday celebration of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, who is North Korea’s founder. Kim Jong-un’s absence was extremely alarming to many countries, because it caused many to question who would be next in line to rule the nuclear-armed country. But first, how did the world’s countries even begin to suspect that Kim Jong-un was missing?
The first signal that countries noticed was Kim Jong-un’s absence, or a lull in his public appearances. His absence was important because the nature of his leadership is to provide a strong image of stability and of North Korea’s welfare. This is why he is publicly shown as an active leader of special agricultural projects or seen at the opening of newly-constructed factories supporting North Korea’s economic wealth. Kim Jong-un is at the center of most North Korean propaganda for unity, strength, and pride, and when Kim Jong-un stops conducting public appearances, it sends an alarming message. It means the symbol of North Korea’s welfare is in a demanding enough situation to warrant his being unable to make public appearances and maintain an image of strength.
This occurred previously with Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il: his last appearance was December 15th, 2011, and his death was announced on December 19th, four days later. One aspect of North Korea that reinforces its secrecy is the state media’s abundance of stock photos and documentary footage, which is shown when its leader is unable to make public appearances. Due to this use of stock photos, which albeit may be fabricated or inaccurate, from the perspective of the general public, it took only four days for Kim Jong-il to transition from touring the country to being dead. This quick turnaround supports the general public’s fear that anything can happen when a leader disappears for even a few days.
Because the state media cannot be trusted to produce accurately dated material, surrounding countries have developed another way to combat North Korea’s secrecy by looking at satellite images. Satellite images are routinely taken of government buildings and parking lots, for example, in North Korea’s Central Party Complex, which is the party’s main headquarters. Analysts can observe if Kim Jong-un is in the building based on the amount of guards deployed and their positioning. They also look at certain vehicles such as a motorcade at Ponghwa, North Korea’s best hospital, which additionally houses a wing exclusively for the Kim family. Analysts also look to the northern region of the country, where Kim Jong-un has a personal compound used for emergency political, military, or health situations. Despite having detailed systems in place to monitor him, North Korea is very aware of how satellite images can be used to monitor them. As a result, sometimes North Korea adds guards to shifts ordinarily for Kim Jong-un when he is nowhere nearby.
Kim Jong-un’s absence has also brought into question who will be next to lead if Kim Jong-un dies. It could be his sister, Kim Yo-jong, who has gained an incredibly high ranking within the North Korean regime and is quoted from the Washington Post to be Kim Jong-un’s alter ego. Furthermore, the United States government has placed her on a black list for committing “severe human rights abuses”. From leading propagandic movements, to being Kim Jong-un’s confidante, she is a powerful figure in the regime, but due to North Korea’s male-dominated culture, she will most likely never take over for her brother. If she does not come into power, the leading military officials might be next, or other high ranking male officials, yet this path into power may be turbulent or dangerous for the rest of the world’s citizens.