Kim Jong-un’s Recent Absence: A Viewpoint from North Korean Media Analysis

“CONFIDENTIAL AND URGENT STOP LORD COPPER HIMSELF GRAVELY DISSATISFIED STOP LORD COPPER PERSONALLY REQUIRES VICTORIES STOP ON RECEIPT OF THIS CABLE VICTORY STOP CONTINUE CABLING VICTORIES UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE STOP…

“They don’t seem very pleased with me in London. They seem to want more news.”1

The British writer Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel, Scoop, caricatures foreign correspondents’ never-ending struggle to find war “scoops” in the fictitious African state of Ishmaelia, where there is no war. This satire of the media industry’s insatiable appetite for scoops, even if it means having to manufacture them, remains just as relevant in today’s world as it was nearly a century ago.

This could not have been more clearly demonstrated than by the global media frenzy over the whereabouts of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, triggered by his unusual absence from his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s birth anniversary on April 15, until his reappearance on May 2.2 What likely would have ended with one or two days of speculation took a life of its own when a Seoul-based website specializing in North Korea reported that Kim Jong had recently received a heart surgery.3 Speculation about the leader’s health escalated to a new level when an international media outlet followed up with a report that Kim was in “grave danger” after a surgery. It set off a fresh wave of rumors about the leader’s conditions, with the more proactive media outlets and experts even analyzing potential candidates to succeed Kim Jong-un.4

Setting the context

Kim’s absence from the mausoleum on his grandfather’s birth anniversary certainly was unusual: it was the first time he skipped a visit to the mausoleum on April 15. In North Kora, the birth and death anniversaries of the late Kim leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, are considered the most sacred political events. Kim Jong-un’s visits to the mausoleum, the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, are the hallmark of his respect for his forefathers.

It was not, however, the first time Kim Jong-un was absent from an anniversary related to Kim Il-sung: he was not seen on his grandfather’s death anniversary on July 8, 2018. The cause of his absence then remains unknown, just as reasons for Kim’s latest hiatus remain a mystery. Unlike this time, Kim’s failure to pay respects at the mausoleum in July 2018 did not invite undue speculation about his health, probably because he appeared in public just two days after the anniversary.5

This time, Kim made his first public reappearance in 20 days: North Korean state media on April 12 last reported on Kim’s guidance of a Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee (CC) Political Bureau (PB) meeting held the previous day; Kim made his next state media appearance on May 2.6

Where, then, does a 20-day absence fit on a scale of intervals between Kim Jong-un’s public activities? A review of all public activities by Kim Jong-un between January 2012, when he ascended to power, and May 2, 2020 shows that, of Kim’s 1,114 appearances, 981, or 88.1 percent, occurred within five days or less of one another.7 The number goes down drastically for gaps of six to 10 days, and still more for intervals of 11 days or longer. Kim’s longest absence to date stands at 40 days in 2014.

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1. This dataset begins with Kim’s public appearances on January 1, 2012; therefore, Kim’s first reported activity on January 1, 2012 has a lag time of N/A.
2. 0-day lag refers to media appearances on the same day.

Although Kim’s latest hiatus is only one of a handful number of absences with 16 days of interval or longer, it is consistent with Kim’s public profile since 2018. Of Kim’s 1,114 public appearance total, 14 (1.3 percent) had a lag time of 16 days or longer; of these 14, 11 occurred between February 2018 and May 2, 2020. In 2020 alone, Kim Jong-un was absent for 21 days between January 26 and February 16, and for 19 days between March 22 and April 10, comparable to Kim’s latest 20-day hiatus. Going back slightly further to late 2019, Kim was absent from the public view for 28 days between September 11 and October 9, and 19 days between October 27 and November 15.

It is impossible to know for certain the reasons for Kim Jong-un’s longer absences using solely open-source data. Numbers and dates are only one part of the story: what is more important is the internal and external context, which may or may not be visible, in the lead-up to, during, and following Kim’s longer absences. Tracking Kim’s longer absences against key events in the entire calendar year would provide a fuller picture but is beyond the scope of this paper. In that vein, the remainder of this section surveys Kim’s latest public activity prior to, and his first appearance following, a longer hiatus, as well as key events during his longer absence, which can shed some light on factors that determine his longer absences.

A review of Kim’s absences of 16 days or longer between 2018 and May 2020 shows three patterns: a) Kim’s longer breaks are spread out throughout the year, but there are no longer absences in July, August, and December; b) Kim’s longer disappearances were usually preceded by domestic political events, weapons tests, or military drills; and c) after a longer absence, Kim almost always visits a major construction site or a newly built facility, engages in a diplomatic activity, or appears at a military- or weapons-related event or site. Most of Kim’s longer absences in 2018 and 2019 appear to have followed Kim’s own major diplomatic activities, such as his visit to China in March 2018 and his summit with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Pyongyang in June 2019, or a period in which Kim himself likely was involved in major foreign policy-making decisions, such as in the weeks leading up to US-North Korea Stockholm talks in October 2019.

The reasons for Kim’s longer absences in 2020 seem less clear. According to the ROK Unification Ministry’s records, Kim’s public appearances from January through May 2 this year number 18, less than his 23 and 27 appearances during the same period in 2018 and 2019, respectively. It is possible that Kim stayed out of the public eye to focus on addressing the domestic economic issues he pointed out in his December 2019 party plenum speech, or the coronavirus quarantine issues he emphasized during the PB meetings in February and April.8 North Korea since the December party plenum has focused largely on domestic issues.

Profile of Kim Jong-un’s Longer Absences 2018-20209

Media Coverage Date

Lag Time

Kim’s Activity

Key Domestic and External Events During Kim’s Absence (Actual Event Dates)

May 2, 2020

20 days

Visited a newly built fertilizer factory

  • North Korea holds a parliamentary session (4/12), two days later than scheduled
  • North Korea conducts a cruise missile test (4/14)10
  • Kim Il-sung’s birth anniversary (4/15)

April 12, 2020

 

Guided a WPK CC PB meeting; inspected a pursuit assault plane group and its drill

April 10, 2020

19 days

Guided an artillery firing drill

  • North Korea conducts a weapon test (3/29)

March 22, 2020

 

Observed a weapon test

February 16, 2020

21 days

Visited the mausoleum to mark Kim Jong-il’s birth anniversary

  • North Korea launches a national emergency quarantine system against the coronavirus (1/30)
  • Korean People’s Army (KPA) founding day (2/8)

January 26, 2020

 

Viewed a lunar New Year concert

November 15, 2019

19 days

Provided guidance at a hot spring resort construction site

  • North Korea conducts a weapon test (10/31)
  • North Korea turns up the heat on the US, issuing statements warning the US against planned US-ROK joint military drills (11/6-11/14)

October 27, 2019

 

Provided guidance at a medical appliances factory

October 9, 2019

28 days

Provided guidance at a military-run farm

  • North Korea issues statements related to the resumption of talks with the US (9/16-10/1)
  • North Korea conducts a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test (10/2)
  • North Korea holds working-level talks with the US in Stockholm (10/5)
  • North Korea Foreign Ministry criticizes outcome of Stockholm talks (10/6)

September 11, 2019

 

Guided a weapon test

June 21, 2019

16 days

Activities with President Xi Jinping in Pyongyang

N/A

June 5, 2019

 

Photo-session with soldiers’ families

June 1, 2019

22 days

Visited machine factories*, a tractor factory, and others

N/A

May 10, 2019

 

Guided a firepower strike drill

March 27, 2019

16 days

Guided a military officials’ meeting

N/A

March 11, 2019

 

Voted in parliamentary elections

October 30, 2018

19 days

Provided guidance at a Samjiyon County construction site

  • Inter-Korean high-level talks held in Panmunjom (10/15)
  • Inter-Korean general-level military talks held in Panmunjom (10/26)

October 11, 2018

 

Visited the mausoleum marking the party founding day; provided guidance at the Samjiyon Orchestra Theater before its opening

March 28, 2018

22 days

Visited China

  • Kim agrees to an inter-Korean summit (3/5)
  • Trump accepts Kim’s summit proposal (3/8)11
  • Kim visits China (3/25-3/28)

March 6, 2018

 

Met with a South Korean special envoy and his delegation

March 6, 2018

17 days

Met with a South Korean special envoy and his delegation

  • North Korean high-level delegation visits South Korea (2/25-2/27)

February 17, 2018

 

Visited the mausoleum to mark Kim Jong-il’s birth anniversary

Note: Two consecutive rows make up a pair. The bottom rows are Kim’s last activity before his absence of 16 days and more; the top rows are Kim’s first activity following such an absence.
* The machine factories Kim Jong-un visited are generally known as weapons production facilities.

The simple rule of North Korean media analysis: baselining

Besides the speculation, South Korean and Western media coverage of Kim Jong-un and North Korea during Kim’s recent 20-day absence was in many ways inaccurate and misleading, evincing some of the most common fallacies in North Korea analysis. Such was the pattern in South Korean and Western media coverage of North Korea even before the latest Kim Jong-un incident; and now appears to be a good time to review the media’s approach to North Korea analysis, and how it may be improved.

North Korean media analysis is a specialized discipline requiring years of training. Understanding the basic North Korean media landscape, state propaganda objectives and mechanisms, and the various public messaging tools and techniques the country uses to shape and manage public opinion would be a brief but hardly a fair representation of propaganda analysis, which has its roots in the propaganda content analysis methodology developed by Alexander L. George, based on a study of Nazi propaganda from World War II. This methodology remains central to reading the underlying intent of closed regimes like North Korea.

Elaborating on the North Korean media analysis methodology would go beyond the scope of this paper, but there is one core phase of state media analysis that was exemplified by the preceding section and remains central to the ensuing case studies in this paper: baselining.

Understanding the North Korean regime’s current thinking and future intentions requires establishing the country’s behavioral norm and discerning consistency as well as shifts in patterns and trends—in short, contextualizing North Korea’s current behavior. This can be done by a process of baselining, which can be summed up as:

  • Establish the current communication profile by identifying and parsing the key diagnostic elements of North Korea’s current messaging, such as the vehicle, target audience, and language of the communication, as well as the internal and/or external context in which the communication was made;
  • Build a baseline by finding past similar examples and for each example, parsing and organizing the same key diagnostic elements as was done for the current communication; and
  • Review the baseline of the current and similar past communications to identify trends, consistency, and anomalies.

 

The following three case studies a) examine some of the most widely circulated South Korean and Western media reporting of North Korea since rumors started circulating about Kim’s poor health conditions, and b) offer rebuttals from a North Korean media analysis point of view by parsing and baselining North Korean raw data.

Case study #1: Lack of a baseline

Most media outlets correctly pointed out that Kim Jong-un’s longest absence to date had been 40 days, and that his father Kim Jong-il had been out for as many as 51 days, in 2008.

Where the media lacked the correct context was when they reported that North Korea’s reticence was unusual, and that high-level officials’ absence was abnormal.12 A former North Korean diplomat, who is widely regarded as a North Korea expert, lent weight to these claims.13 The media also speculated on Kim’s possible appearance on the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army (KPRA) founding anniversary on April 25.14

The rebuttal

“Usual” indicates consistency with the norm; “unusual” naturally implies the opposite—a deviation from the norm. Establishing the “norm” requires going back to past similar cases and building a baseline of North Korea’s behavior. North Korea traditionally has not reacted, via official statements or state media vehicles, to rumors about the leadership, the most important and sensitive theme for a regime that is built around the top leader.

The two most recent examples are Kim Jong-il’s 51-day absence from August to October 2008, and Kim Jong-un’s 40-day absence from September to October 2014. Kim Jong-il is widely believed to have had a stroke and was treated for it during his absence in 2008.15 Kim Jong-un underwent ankle surgery during his 40-day absence in 2014, according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.16 In both cases, the North did not respond directly to rumors prevailing at the time about the leader’s health.

In 2008, the closest to a North Korean reaction was an article carried by Choson Sinbo, a Tokyo-based pro-North Korea website which appears to have editorial ties to the Pyongyang regime. The article indirectly denied rumors about Kim’s health problems by explaining that the top leader’s activities are sometimes not reported for a length of time when tensions are running high between North Korea and the US.17 This article was published eight days after Kim Jong-il skipped a military parade marking the 60th anniversary of the North Korea state founding on September 9, which further fueled speculation about the state of his health.

On September 25, 2014, 21 days into Kim Jong-un’s absence from the public view, a North Korea state-run TV documentary mentioned in passing that the leader paid field guidance visits the previous month “despite not feeling very well,” showing a limping Kim.18 This extremely rare, if not unprecedented, indirect oral reference to the supreme leader’s health was the closest form of a North Korean response amid global speculation about the state of Kim Jong-un. Pyongyang television has since rerun this documentary 56 times according to the ROK Unification Ministry’s database, indicating that the program, if its initial airing date was timed to implicitly address international concerns about the leader’s health, no longer seems to serve the same purpose.19

To prove that a North Korean high-level official’s absence amid the international rumors was unusual, their public profile must first be established. South Korean media specifically questioned the absence of Choe Ryong-hae and Pak Pong-ju, WPK CC PB presidium members and officially the country’s second and third highest-ranking officials after Kim Jong-un, and Kim Yo-jong, the leader’s sister, who does not officially rank high in the leadership hierarchy but has a special status in the regime due to her bloodline. 

High-level North Korean officials usually appear as part of a group, mostly at events marking major anniversaries or when they accompany Kim Jong-un on his public appearances. Choe Ryong-hae seldom appears in public by himself: over the past year, he has paid only six solo economic guidance visits. Pak Pong-chu regularly provides guidance visits at economic sites: between May 2019 and April 2020, he appeared at 68 economic sites, making an average of 5.7 visits per month. Kim Yo-jong has made only one solo public appearance to date—when she held one-on-one talks with Song Tao, head of the Communist Party of China International Liaison Department, in Pyongyang in April 2018.20 Given that there were no major anniversaries after April 15, when the rumor mill began to churn about Kim Jong-un’s whereabouts, and that North Korea’s high-level officials, with the exception of Pak, rarely, if ever, appear by themselves, their absence after April 15 was not unusual. Pak eventually did make a solo appearance at Pyongyang economic installations during Kim’s absence, on April 29.21

The expectation that Kim might appear on the founding day of the KPRA, the anti-Japanese guerrilla army, on April 25 also was unfounded. In a Politburo decision announced in January 2018, North Korea moved the founding day of North Korea’s modern-day army, the Korean People’s Army (KPA), from April 25 to February 8; April 25 instead became the KPRA’s founding anniversary.22 Accordingly, North Korea since 2018 has commemorated February 8 as a major national anniversary, with Kim Jong-un delivering a speech at a military parade on February 8, 2018 to mark the KPA’s 70th founding anniversary.23 North Korea did not hold any major celebrations, nor did the top leader make any type of public appearance, on the KPRA founding day in 2018 and 2019. Against that backdrop, there was no reason to look forward to Kim’s public appearance on April 25 this year, all the more so as it was the KPRA’s 88th founding anniversary, a non-major anniversary year. Quinquennial and decennial anniversaries are considered major anniversary years in North Korea.

Case study #2: Reading into acknowledged normal North Korean state media behavior

South Korean and Western media assessed that Kim Jong-un was running the country normally, citing as their basis North Korean media’s publication of Kim Jong-un’s exchanges of letters with foreign leaders.24 This view was shared by ROK Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, during his testimony to the South Korean parliament during Kim’s absence.25

The rebuttal

The interpretation of an ordinary North Korean state media behavior as a signal of Kim’s well-being raises the fundamental question of whether such normalcy holds any significance in determining the state of Kim. The proponents of this position say that state media’s continued reporting of Kim’s activities, such as sending letters to North Korean workers and foreign dignitaries, if it does not show the state of Kim’s health, at least indicates the top leader is alive. The best way to put this theory to the test is by reviewing whether North Korean state media reported on the leader’s activities a) on July 8, 1994, after Kim Il-sung’s death at 0200 on July 8 and before the announcement of his death on July 9, and b) on December 18, 2011, after Kim Jong-il’s death at 0830 on December 17, and before the announcement on December 19.

The July 8, 1994 edition of the party daily Rodong Sinmun carried the text of two foreign leaders’ letters to Kim Il-sung.26 Admittedly, receiving a telegram, a passive act, is not quite on par with sending a letter, an active act. What is worth noting here, however, is that North Korean state media treated Kim Il-sung as alive even after his death, until they announced his death the following day. The party daily ceased publishing telegrams from or to Kim Il-sung after its announcement of the leader’s death on July 9.

Similarly, though not the same as reporting on the leader’s activities,the party daily on December 18, 2011 continued to report on foreign organizations’ praise of Kim Jong-il’s leadership using the present tense, thereby implying Kim was still alive.27 Rodong Sinmun published the announcement of Kim Jong-il’s death on December 20, 2011, one day later than broadcast state media’s announcement. The daily’s December 18 and 19 editions did not publish any letters to or from Kim Jong-il, which was not unusual as the daily did not carry such letters every day or even every other day when Kim was alive.

Some have said state media reports on Kim Jong-un’s activities during his absence, such as sending letters and gifts, indicated that he was conducting state affairs “normally.”

This concept may be tested by reviewing letters, thanks, or gifts sent in Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un’s names during their longest absences in 2008 and 2014, respectively. Both Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un, reportedly ill, missed key national events during these absences. Hence, if North Korean state media regularly reported on the leaders’ letters, thanks, and gifts during their prolonged breaks, it may be more technically correct to say that North Korea, and not necessarily the Kim leader, handled state affairs normally.

During his absence from August 15 to October 5, 2008, Kim Jong-il sent five letters and thanks to foreign leaders and workers at home. This was less than half of the 11 Kim sent during the same period in 2007, and less than one-third of the 16 he sent between the same dates in 2009. There were some variables in 2007 and 2009 that did not exist during the same period in 2008, such as a major flood in North Korea (2007) and deaths (2009) that necessitated additional letters and notes of thanks from the leader. However, the noticeably small number of greetings from Kim during his absence in 2008 was largely due to a drastic cut in his thanks to functionaries and workers. The 2008 case suggests that Kim’s alleged illness may have had an impact on letters and notes issued in the top leader’s name, but North Korea ensured the mandatory diplomatic telegrams were sent while minimizing the thanks sent to people at home, thereby giving the impression state affairs were being carried on normally.

The impact of Kim Jong-un’s ankle problem was not nearly as evident in 2014, possibly because it was less serious than his father’s stroke in 2008, or possibly due to a change in North Korean propaganda strategy to make detection harder. During his absence from September 4 to October 14, 2014, Kim sent 12 letters and thanks to foreign dignitaries and workers at home. This was nearly identical to the 11 he sent between the same dates the previous year.

In sum, North Korean media will always portray state affairs as being business as usual, whether the leader has died or is ill, until they decide to say otherwise. Hence, tracking the North Korean leader’s messages may not be the most accurate way to gauge his state of health. A major deviation from the pattern of Kim’s letters and thanks during a prolonged absence could be a signal, as the 2008 example suggests. However, the possibility of a shift in North Korea’s propaganda strategy to make detection more difficult should be taken into account.

Case study #3: Comparing apples and oranges

Some media, particularly Western outlets, compared Pyongyang’s reaction to foreign policy issues to its lack of response to leadership health rumors.28 The example they unanimously cited was the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s denial of Kim Jong-un sending a letter to US President Trump just one day after Trump said he had received a “note” from Kim.29 They drew a contrast between North Korea’s quick reaction to Trump’s comment on Kim Jong-un’s note and its continued silence on rumors about the leader’s health.

The rebuttal

North Korea’s approach to foreign policy is an apple; its handling of leadership issues is an orange. Hence, it is impossible to usefully compare and contrast North Korea’s reaction to a foreign policy issue with its reticence on Kim’s health rumors.

North Korea tends to keep its leadership dynamics veiled due to potential sensitivities and a desire to not provide much information about the inner workings of the leadership circles. Of all North Korean leadership issues, public messaging related to the top Kim leader is the most carefully planned, orchestrated, and implemented. All issues and information related to or about the Kim leader and his family are considered the most important and sensitive, the leader’s health likely towards the top of the list as it can have repercussions for regime stability.

North Korea does not directly react, via official or media channels, to assertions about the Kim leader’s personal life, as laid out above. Another example of the Kim family exceptionalism is when the party daily did not publish a profile photo and brief biography of Kim Jong-il’s sister Kim Kyong-hui when she was elected as a party Politburo member in September 2010.30 All other Politburo members’ photos and profiles (except for Kim Jong-il’s) were published. North Korea appears to have deemed a Kim family member’s basic biographical information and career details too sensitive and possibly even inappropriate for public disclosure.

Unlike Kim leadership issues, North Korea regularly states its views on key foreign policy issues. It carefully chooses from a hierarchy of official and media vehicles, determines the audience and timing, and frames the language in a certain way—all long-standing techniques to convey its intentions and shape public opinion in line with its foreign policy and propaganda objectives.

Trump-Kim personal diplomacy is a sensitive matter for North Korea, which has been wary of it being misused by Trump for his personal political gain, or by South Korea, which Pyongyang views as anxious to resume playing the mediator role between the US and North Korea. Moreover, Pyongyang has expressed skepticism in recent months that the personal rapport between Trump and Kim will lead to improved US-North Korea ties. This point was made by Kim Kye-kwan, a former top negotiator to US-North Korea talks, on January 11, one day after a South Korean government official said Trump had asked the South Korean president to convey birthday greetings to Kim Jong-un.31 Kim Yo-jong also issued a “press statement” on March 22, echoing Kim Kye-kwan’s message that personal ties between Kim and Trump will not necessarily lead to improved diplomatic ties.32 These sensitivities appear to have prompted North Korea to react quickly to Trump’s comment about a “note” from Kim Jong-un. The one-day reaction also is consistent with North Korea’s faster response time vis-a-vis foreign policy issues in recent years, usually between one to three or four days.

Conclusion

The media’s groundless reporting and uninformed analysis of North Korea had a cost. It kept policymakers from doing their real jobs and created confusion and anxiety on the part of news consumers, particularly those residing in South Korea, for whom North Korea remains a real security liability.

The latest incident also laid bare the dearth of North Korea experts who base their analysis on historical data and hard evidence, not impressions and off-the-cuff observations. Data can result in different interpretations; but at least one’s comments should be backed by evidence. Admittedly, many experts did caution against wild speculation and advised against reading too much into Kim Jong-un’s absence. As shown by the aforementioned examples, however, it was difficult to find objective, data-driven analysis, by experts and journalists alike, of North Korea’s behavior and its current and future calculations. This incident highlights the utter importance of applying sound North Korea media analysis methodologies, and training the next-generation cadre of North Korea experts on those techniques.

Related to the topic of objective analysis, the recent handling of Kim Jong-un was a stark reminder of the fact that North Korea remains a thoroughly ideological issue in South Korea. The ideological divide was clear from political parties, the media, and experts, down to Internet and SNS users in how they reported, interpreted, and reacted to the rumors. This could not have been more clearly demonstrated than by the ruling party’s call for punitive action against the two North Korean defectors who are now the major opposition party’s lawmakers for their unsubstantiated claims about Kim Jong-un’s health conditions.33 South Korea’s progressive civic groups pressed charges against the two defector-turned-lawmakers for spreading “fake news.”34

The recent whirlwind of speculation and rumors about Kim Jong-un once again confirmed how much the security of the Korean Peninsula and the region rests on Kim’s health and North Korean regime stability. The South Korean government, for one, clearly viewed the rampant rumors as a matter of security concern and repeatedly confirmed that all was normal in North Korea.35 For this reason, our approach to North Korea as journalists, experts, or policymakers should be objective and data-driven. North Korea is too big of a security risk for North Korea policy to be shaped, and the public opinion to be swayed, by ideology or poor analysis.

For all that, journalism is journalism, North Korea will always remain tight-lipped about Kim’s health, and the North Korean leader’s health issues will always have enormous security ramifications. Once in a while, a longer Kim Jong-un absence from the public eye or his failure to appear at a major event will invite questions and stoke excitement about his health or whether his power remains intact. Scoops and quick analyses rarely, if ever, allow time for much research, let alone the painstaking baselining process, which could take hours, if not days. Dramatic headlines and tenuous assertions will ensue, echoing those of 2008, 2014, and 2020. Herein lies the perennial dilemma in covering North Korea.

If there is no time to go back to past North Korean media behavior for comparison and contextualization, the least one might do is to not automatically tie the North Korean leader’s absence to trouble with Kim himself or the regime, recalling that many rumors and media reports in similar past instances turned out to be untrue. The North Korean leader’s public profile is determined by multiple domestic and external factors, as noted above; sometimes personal factors may weigh in, of which health may or may not be one.

1. Evelyn Waugh, Scoop (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012), p. 172.

2. Political News Team, “Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un Cuts Tape for Completion of Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory,” Rodong Sinmun, May 2, 2020, http://rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2020-05-02-0006

3. Ha Yoon Ah, “Source: Kim Jong Un recently received heart surgery,” Daily NK, April 21, 2020, https://www.dailynk.com/english/source-kim-jong-un-recently-received-heart-surgery/

4. Jim Sciutto, Joshua Berlinger, Yoonjung Seo, Kylie Atwood, and Zachary Cohen, “US monitoring intelligence that North Korean leader is in grave danger after surgery,” CNN, April 21, 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/20/politics/kim-jong-un-north-korea/index.html

5. Political News Team, “Kim Jong Un Inspects Junghung Farm in Samjiyon County,” Rodong Sinmun, July 10, 2018, http://rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2018-07-10-0004

6. Political News Team, “Political Bureau of C.C., WPK Meets under Guidance of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un,” Rodong Sinmun, April 12, 2020, http://rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2020-04-12-0004

7. “김정은 위원장 공개활동 동향,” data of Kim Jong-un’s public activities on the North Korea portal of the ROK Ministry of Unification, last checked May 7, 2020, https://nkinfo.unikorea.go.kr/nkp/trend/publicEvent.do. The tabulation of lag time between each Kim activity is by the author, based on the Unification Ministry’s dataset of all Kim appearances between 2012 and 2020. All dates of Kim activities in this report are media coverage dates as opposed to the dates of actual events, unless otherwise noted. This is because North Korean state media does not always provide dates of Kim’s activities.

8. Political News Team, “Report on 5th Plenary Meeting of 7th C.C., WPK,” Rodong Sinmun, January 1, 2020, http://rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2020-01-01-0012; Political News Team, “Enlarged Meeting of Political Bureau of C.C., WPK Held,” Rodong Sinmun, February 29, 2020, http://rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2020-02-29-0001; Political News Team, “Political Bureau of C.C., WPK Meets under Guidance of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un,” Rodong Sinmun, April 12, 2020, http://rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2020-04-12-0004

9. All data in this table are based on reports on the websites of the North Korean party daily Rodong Sinmun (rodong.rep.kp) and news agency KCNA (kcna.kp) unless otherwise noted.

10. Oh Seok-min and Choi Soo-hyang, “(2nd LD) N. Korea fires barrage of missiles on eve of founder’s birthday, S. Korea’s elections,” Yonhap, April 14, 2020, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20200414006452325

11. “(LEAD) Trump, Kim agree to meet by May: Seoul envoy,” Yonhap, March 9, 2018, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20180309003351315.

12. Channel A News Top 10 show, “수뇌부도모습감췄다,” Channel A, April 27, 2020,
http://www.ichannela.com/news/main/news_detailPage.do?publishId=000000200384; 박영환, “태구민 ‘北, 특이동향 없는 게 아니라 대단히 이례적’," Newsis, April 28, 2020, https://newsis.com/view/?id=NISX20200428_0001008316&cID=10301&pID=10300

13. 박영환, “태구민 ‘北, 특이동향 없는 게 아니라 대단히 이례적’," Newsis, April 28, 2020, https://newsis.com/view/?id=NISX20200428_0001008316&cID=10301&pID=10300

14. 서재준, “내일 北 인민혁명군 창건일…김정은 모습 드러낼까,” News1, April 24, 2020,
https://www.news1.kr/articles/?3917017; 함민정, “김정은, 인민혁명군 기념일에도 ‘오리무중’…北매체도 침묵,” JoongAng Ilbo, April 25, 2020, https://news.joins.com/article/23763083

15. 윤완준, “2008년 뇌졸중으로 ‘잠적’ 51일만에 다시 나타난 김정일은…,” Dong-A Ilbo,  October 16, 2014,   http://www.donga.com/news/article/all/20141016/67193818/1

16. 김문경, "김정은, 발목 물혹 제거수술,”  YTN,  October 29, 2014, https://www.ytn.co.kr/_ln/0101_201410290730150228

17. Unattributed, “조선신보, 김정일 위원장 와병설 부인,” NoCut News, September 17, 2008, https://www.nocutnews.co.kr/news/496379

18. Documentary, “인민을 위한 령도의 나날에(2),” Korean Central Television, September 25, 2014.

19. “북한 TV 프로그램 편성표,” a database of North Korean television’s daily programming on the North Korea portal of the ROK Ministry of Unification, last checked May 7, 2020, https://nkinfo.unikorea.go.kr/nkp/theme/listNkTv.do

20. “조선로동당 중앙위원회 제1부부장 김여정동지가 중국공산당 중앙위원회 대외련락부장이 인솔하는 중국예술단의 숙소를 방문하였다,” Rodong Sinmun website, April 14, 2018, http://rodong.rep.kp/ko/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2018-04-14-0008

21. KCNA, “박봉주동지 김정숙평양방직공장과 평양시안의 상업봉사단위 현지료해,” Rodong Sinmun website, April 29, 2020, http://rodong.rep.kp/ko/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2020-04-29-0012

22. Rodong News Team, “Decision of Political Bureau of C.C., WPK on Marking Feb. 8 as KPA Birthday,” Rodong Sinmun website, January 24, 2018, http://rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2018-01-24-0008

23. Political News Team, “Military Parade Marks 70th Founding Anniversary of KPA,” Rodong Sinmun website, February 9, 2018, http://rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2018-02-09-0002

24. 황혜경, “’김정은, 시리아에 답전’ 얼굴 없는 외교행보만…위중설 침묵 사흘째,” YTN, April 23, 2020, https://www.ytn.co.kr/_ln/0101_202004231305281719; Jake Kwon, “North Korean media publishes letter from Kim Jong Un to South Africa’s President dated April 27,” CNN, April 27, 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/27/asia/kim-jong-un-health-letter-south-african-president-intl/index.html

25. Koh Byung-joon and Kim Seung-yeon, “(LEAD) Minister says N.K. media reports suggest Kim executes state affairs normally,” Yonhap, April 28, 2020, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20200428003451325

26. Unattributed, “위대한 수령 김일성동지께 여러나라 당 및 국가 령도자들이 련대성전문을 보내여왔다,” Rodong Sinmun, July 8, 1994, p. 1.

27. KCNA, “위대한 수령 김일성동지의 탄생 100돐을 인류공동의 대정치축전으로 성대히 기념하자,” Rodong Sinmun, December 18, 2011, p. 1; “선군정치는 모든 나라들이 따라배워야 할 정치방식,” Rodong Sinmun, December 18, 2011, p. 1.

28. Will Ripley interview on Wolf Blitzer’s “Situation Room,” CNN, April 27, 2020, https://twitter.com/willripleyCNN/status/1254564716908892160; Jamie McIntyre, “North Korea’s Kim Jong Un sends thanks amid speculation about his health,” Washington Examiner, April 27, 2020, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/policy/defense-national-security/north-koreas-kim-jong-un-sends-thanks-amid-speculation-about-his-health

29. “Chief of News Service for Overseas Distribution of Department of Press and Information of DPRK Foreign Ministry Issues Statement,” DPRK Foreign Ministry, April 19, 2020, http://www.mfa.gov.kp/en/chief-of-news-service-for-overseas-distribution-of-department-of-press-and-information-of-dprk-foreign-ministry-issues-statement/

30. “조선로동당 중앙위원회 2010년 9월전원회의에 관한 공보,” Rodong Sinmun, September 29, 2010, pp. 5-7.

31. “Statement Issued by Advisor of DPRK Foreign Ministry,” North Korean Foreign Ministry website, January 11, 2020, http://www.mfa.gov.kp/en/statement-issued-by-advisor-of-dprk-foreign-ministry/; 김성진, “北 김계관 ’트럼프, ‘김정은 생일 축하’ 직접 친서…南 설레발’,” Newsis, January 11, 2020, https://newsis.com/view/?id=NISX20200111_0000885964&cID=10301&pID=10300

32. Kim Yo Jong, First Vice Department Director of WPK Central Committee, Issues Statement,” KCNA, March 22, 2020.

33. Kang Seung-woo, “Political conflict intensifying over North Korean defectors-turned-politicians,” The Korea Times, May 6, 2020, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2020/05/356_289093.html

34. 고가혜, “’김정은 이상설’ 태영호·지성호 고발사건, 형사부 배당,” Newsis, May 6, 2020, https://newsis.com/view/?id=NISX20200506_0001015891&cID=10201&pID=10200

35. “No unusual activity in N. Korea, Cheong Wa Dae says, amid speculation on Kim Jong-un’s health,” Yonhap, April 21, 2020, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20200421005000315; Koh Byung-joon and Kim Seung-yeon, “(LEAD) Minister says N.K. media reports suggest Kim executes state affairs normally,” Yonhap, April 28, 2020, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20200428003451325