President Trump's personal engagement with Kim Jong Un was premised on a calculation that it would help avoid the lack of clarity that plagued past bilateral talks. But after a murky report on an obscure website set off global speculation Tuesday over the North Korean leader's health, the United States appeared to be in no better position than before to assess the stability of the regime.
A day of rumors and conjecture was kick-started when Daily NK, a South Korean publication run by defectors, asserted that Kim was recovering at a mountain villa after undergoing a cardiovascular procedure last week. Though the outlet cited a single unidentified source, the report snowballed after CNN quoted a U.S. official "with direct knowledge" as saying that Washington was monitoring intelligence that Kim's health was in "grave danger."
By the time the South Korean government contradicted the bulletins by telling reporters there was no such evidence, the uncertainty had produced a round of pontificating over why Kim, an obese 36-year-old smoker, had disappeared from public view in recent days and who would be in line to succeed him.
"We're monitoring these reports very closely," White House national security adviser Robert C. O'Brien told Fox News, emphasizing that "North Korea is a very closed society."
The situation was reminiscent of past incidents in which Kim — and his father, Kim Jong Il, before him — had health scares, leaving U.S. officials in the dark. In 2014, the younger Kim disappeared from public view for several weeks, prompting rumors he might be brain dead before it emerged that he had undergone ankle surgery after he returned to public life sporting a walking cane.
Even Kim's ascension in 2011 was shrouded in mystery, as U.S. officials did not know of his father's death for two days until the regime announced it.
"I would not be surprised if U.S. intelligence or South Korean intelligence simply don't know" about Kim's whereabouts or condition, said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst on Korean affairs who left government in 2010.
Such a lack of clarity would further highlight the limits of Trump's unorthodox personal diplomacy with Kim, which has included three meetings over 13 months of fitful nuclear disarmament talks. Though the negotiations have gone dormant since last summer, Trump sent Kim a note in late March that included an offer to cooperate in efforts to defeat the coronavirus pandemic, according to the leader's sister, Kim Yo Jong, who is a high-ranking official in the ruling party.
North Korean officials denied Trump's assertion at a news conference this week that Kim had reciprocated with a note of his own, and the U.S. president's courtship strategy has shown signs of diminishing returns. The North has resumed short-range missile tests, including a series of projectile launches over the past month.
Some former U.S. government officials who worked on North Korean diplomacy suggested Trump's personal courtship of Kim could make it more difficult for intelligence officials to assess Kim's health and the stability of the North Korean regime.
One former Obama administration official noted that despite the leaders' relationship, the rush to forgo a working-level dialogue on the nuclear talks in favor of showy summit meetings has meant missed opportunities to establish deeper engagement throughout the two governments.
Christopher Hill, who served as the lead negotiator in the six-party talks with North Korea during the George W. Bush administration, recalled the uncertainty over Kim Jong Il's health amid U.S. and South Korean intelligence reports that he had suffered a stroke in summer 2008. The assessments were confirmed months later by a French doctor, who was flown to the country to treat him.
Hill said the Trump administration's deteriorating relationship with China could reduce potential intelligence-sharing from North Korea's closest benefactor. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Tuesday that Beijing was unaware of the source of the reports on Kim and offered no further comment.
"I don't think North Korea will tell us anything, no matter how many love letters they send," Hill said. "Where we used to get stuff was from the Chinese, and I think the relationship with China has become so fraught that we don't have any kind of offline communication that helps us understand North Korea."
Kim’s health has long been a concern given his heavy smoking habit and body weight of as much as 300 pounds, but he also has the best medical care North Korea can muster, with the ability to call on expertise from Russia or China. Information about his health is extremely hard to verify in the secretive state.
When Kim failed to show up for an important celebration to mark his late grandfather’s birthday last week, most experts assessed that he was either taking precautions because of the coronavirus pandemic or was simply breaking with precedent to show he was his own man.
Daily NK said Kim underwent surgery April 12 at a hospital in North Korea’s Myohyangsan mountain — the mountain where his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994.
But the website said Kim left the hospital to recover at one of his many residences. It also said some doctors remained in attendance but others had already returned to Pyongyang — suggesting that there was no immediate medical emergency.
Diplomats and officials in the region said there were no signs of unusual military activity at the border between North and South Korea, and North Korean embassies around the world appeared to be operating normally.
A South Korean government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be quoted by name, said the CNN report was “not true.”
Daily NK said Kim has been suffering cardiovascular problems since August, which had been worsened by two visits to Mount Paektu, a sacred peak on North Korea’s border with China, late last year. It said Kim left Pyongyang for the hospital after presiding over a meeting of the Politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party on April 11.
Kim has not been seen in public since then.
On April 14, Pyongyang fired several short-range missiles. Kim is often shown in state media attending weapons launches, but the test was not reported in official organs. On April 15, he was not seen at unusually low-key celebrations to mark Kim Il Sung’s birthday.
The developments underscored the uncertainties inherent in North Korea’s tightly controlled regime, in which the leader’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, is increasingly emerging as a senior figure.
Experts said Kim probably does not have a succession plan. But they emphasized that Kim’s demise would not necessarily mean the regime would collapse, because he has made efforts to rebuild the institutional apparatus of the ruling party and government.
How well the Trump administration would be able to sort through a potential leadership transition, however, remains fraught.
Bruce Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief on the Koreas, said North Korea strictly compartmentalizes information, such as keeping the details of its military’s nuclear program obscured from the Foreign Ministry.
“In the intelligence community, we referred to North Korea as the hardest of hard targets,” Klingner said. “When I took over in the Korea branch, I had been working on the Soviet Union, and the North Koreans made the Soviets look like an open book.”
Denyer reported from Tokyo. Kim reported from Seoul.