The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why no one knows what’s going on in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a visit to the Songdowon International Children's Camp. (KCNA via Reuters)
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Kim Jong Un has not been seen since Sept. 3, even missing a high-level meeting of North Korea's Supreme People’s Assembly. Few people have any idea where he is. He could be sick. There could be a power struggle in Pyongyang. He could be taking a vacation. He could have secretly emigrated. The point is, the world really doesn't know.

To give you a sense of the paucity of information right now, it's worth looking at one of the most credible and interesting reports on his absence from Reuters' James Pearson. Pearson was able to find a glimmer of official information in a new documentary about Kim shown on North Korean state television: "The wealth and prosperity of our socialism is thanks to the painstaking efforts of our marshal, who keeps lighting the path for the people, like the flicker of a flame, despite suffering discomfort," the voiceover states over footage of Kim walking with a limp.

That quote hinges on one word – "discomfort." That's a word that could refer to quite a lot of different things. It could mean a chronic ailment or a life-threatening disease, but it could also mean a bad pair of shoes. The New York Times offered a slightly different, though equally vague, translation: that Kim was not "feeling well."

Anyone who has taken the time to read North Korean state media won't be surprised by the lack of detail. While official news outlets such as Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) and Rodong Sinmun often use remarkably elaborate and bellicose language to attack their enemies, domestic North Korean news is presented in the most bare-bones way imaginable, with little explanation and certainly no scrutiny. The health conditions of Kim's predecessors Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung were never mentioned on tightly controlled state television, which is why the mention in the documentary is so surprising.

In circumstances like this, these flickers of information from state media are perhaps the best the world can hope for. Foreign reporters are kept on a tight leash when they visit North Korea, and the only Western news agency to be permanently based there is the Associated Press, which operates under a variety of restrictions.

Worse still, much of the news that makes it overseas comes from less reliable sources: South Korean intelligence officials, unnamed operatives in China or North Korean defectors, for example. While these groups can sometimes provide good information (reports of a power struggle between Kim and his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, were later confirmed by North Korea), they also provide many of the more spurious reports that can dominate foreign headlines (untrustworthy reports that Jang was executed by a pack of wild dogs, for example, or the theory that Kim had killed his ex-girlfriend).

The world is fascinated by North Korea, and often seems happy to believe the wilder stories – whether there is evidence or not. Kim's absence is no different: One of the strangest stories doing the rounds is an ambiguously sourced one in a British newspaper that suggests that Kim has become addicted to Swiss cheese. "The tubby North Korean dictator has become hooked on Emmental," the Daily Mirror reported this week, adding that Kim had "gorged on so much that he has ballooned in size and is now walking with a limp."

Weirdly, there might be a kernel of truth there: Kim has clearly put on weight since becoming leader, and analysts say it may be causing wider health problems. "Any perceptive viewer of the evening news within the DPRK will already know that Kim Jong-un has been limping about, even requiring the use of a golf cart on several occasions," says Adam Cathcart, editor in chief of North Korea-watching Web site Sino-NK.

There are suggestions that the North Korean leader could have gout or diabetes, though his health problems may be simpler. Kim "needs to lose weight, eat better and exercise more," Aidan Foster Carter, an honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, explains in an e-mail. "More no-brainer than mystery imho, this one," he added.

Still, whatever the truth is, we probably won't know for sure until North Korea confirms it. Until then, it's best take everything with a pinch of salt.