Spring History Lesson 2020


A little over a year ago, DPRK leader Kim Jong-un was at the top of search engines thanks to rumors of his death. He even skipped an annual visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on April 15 to mark the 108th anniversary since the birth of Kim Il-sung, which gave rise to rumors of a particular sort. On April 20, 2020, news outlet CNN reported that DPRK leader Kim Jong-un was possibly “in grave danger after undergoing a previous surgery, according to a US official with direct knowledge”.

A wave of lies and disinformation began ending only when the DPRK leader appeared in public on May 2, 2020. At the time, the author even analyzed in detail where and how the rumors were coming out about the death of the country’s leader, we wanted to understand the extent to which the lesson had been learned.

At the end of August 2020, Kim was again “in a coma” even though he spoke at the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee Plenum on August 19 and held a Politburo meeting on August 26.

In May 2021, DPRK leader Kim Jong-un again disappeared from the public eye for almost a month. On May 6, he held a photo session with families of servicemen and “disappeared,” ceasing to appear at public events.

On May 31, the Ministry of Unification noted that Kim Jong-un had not appeared in public for 24 days, his most prolonged absence this year (note, longer than a year ago), but no special propaganda campaign followed. The ministry official gave no possible reasons for Kim’s absence from the public eye, saying it was inappropriate to assess at this time.

Perhaps the point is that on May 25, Kim Jong-un sent an extensive, detailed text to the participants of the Eighth Trade Union Congress, “Let trade unions be the vanguard in opening up a period of a new rise in the construction of socialism in the front lines.” But in 2020, Kim also wrote congratulatory telegrams and guidelines, which were declared inconsistent with his style and attempts to conceal incapacity.

On June 8, 2021, Kim Jong-un chaired a meeting of the Politburo. He then held a meeting with top officials of the Central Committee and local bodies of the Workers’ Party of Korea on economic policy, urging participants to make “selfless efforts” to improve the economy.  The video of these events attracted attention because Kim appeared to have lost a lot of weight, looked refreshed, and his wristwatch was buttoned up more tightly. The mass media of Republic of Korea plus others noted it, and, as a representative of the Ministry of Unification said on June 10, “The Ministry is analyzing the photos… but we have nothing to say about his health problems, and it is not our business to openly comment on it”.

The author pays attention to this story because this time, even the notoriously scandal-mongering media, which traditionally comment on Kim’s departure as a coup, a severe illness, and a sign of impending collapse, refrained from doing so. There was no speculation from partisan experts, no “inside stories” from obscure sources, which proved so “good” a year ago.

Kim seems to have taken vacations or spent time on intensive medical procedures to take care of his health, which is highly recommended for the leader of an authoritarian system, where he is the primary decision-maker, to be in good physical shape. Despite periodic attempts to declare the first sister heir, no preparations for a new crown prince are in sight, and Kim, who will turn ten years as a supreme leader this December, should double up.

The work of the leader of such a country in such a situation is associated with a very high stress level, adding to hereditary diseases and diabetes complications. This is the main reason behind Kim’s excess weight that anti-Pyongyang propaganda is happy to attribute to obesity due to excessive consumption of Swiss cheese and various cognac brands.  Nevertheless, within ten years, it is pretty clear that Kim Jong-un has become overweight, not yet obese, with his loose trouser fit suggesting certain problems with his legs. It is unclear how right the Chosun Ilbo was when it said that Kim had gained 50 kilograms in the past eight years.

Nevertheless, it is known that the leader of North Korea is working on his health. It’s not clear whether he gave up sports because he was seriously into basketball in his childhood and youth. What is known for sure is that Kim, like his grandfather and father, is a rider who is good in the saddle and periodically goes on “horseback rides,” one of which (the ceremonial trip to Paektu Mountain) was widely reported in the media. In addition, although Kim used to smoke quite a lot of strong cigarettes and appeared in photos with a cigarette in his hand, he apparently gave up the habit. To build on his success, he banned smoking in public places not only for himself but also for others. According to 2014 data, the proportion of male smokers in the DPRK was 43.9 percent.

On November 4, 2020, the DPRK passed an anti-smoking law that included stricter legal and public controls over the production and sale of cigarettes and identified places where smoking was banned.   Restaurants, bus stops, hotels, stores, public baths, movie theaters, libraries, gyms, squares, and other public places are declared smoke-free zones. This includes ideological education centers, kindergartens, schools, medical facilities, public transportation, and places prone to fires and explosions, such as forests and gas stations. The smoke-free law applies to everyone in the country, and it emphasizes that “stricter smoke control is an essential requirement to protect life and health.” For a violation, a default fine is issued.

After law was passed, KCNA began a campaign against smoking, both active and passive. It has been noted that smoking has claimed more lives than natural disasters and traffic accidents and that smokers have a greater chance of becoming infected because the coronavirus enters the lungs through the respiratory tract. Cigarette butts have also been called a severe environmental problem because they take up to 10 years to decompose and also cause forest fires.

Nor does the North Korean leader show any signs of mental health disorders, although the anti-Pyongyang propaganda, of course, likes to talk about the “mad bloody tyrant.” Even the psychiatrists cited by the American journalist Anna Fifield have only diagnosed him with narcissism, just to give Kim some kind of deviation. However, a man with a narcissistic approach to his personality did not stick to developing a personality cult or riding on the hocks of the chief designer of the nuclear project – and the picture of Kim doing this is widely known.

To summarize, the author wants to note that he would be glad if reports on Kim’s health and his absences ceased to be a hot topic at all, similar to reports on the health of other world leaders.

Let’s hope that journalists and experts, who do care about their reputations, have learned a valuable lesson from the events of a year ago, and the number of hoax stories devoted to North Korea will begin to decline.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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