North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is suffering a serious medical problem or faces a threat to his power from his highest aides – or maybe both.That’s the inference of an extraordinary acknowledgement from Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) that the portly 30-or-so-year-old heir to power over North Korea is in trouble one way or another. After disappearing from public view for more than three weeks, KCNA blamed his absence on what it carefully described as an “uncomfortable physical condition.”
In a society in which the biggest stories tend to take most people by surprise, this report was shocking not just because of the news that the anointed leader was ill. The question was why was KCNA reporting his illness considering that the long-running illness of his late father, Kim Jong-il, never made the news at all. Why, however, have the power brokers and rule-makers in Pyongyang failed to cover up his illness as they did his father’s prolonged absence from view?
Kim Jong-un, obviously overweight, photographed walking with a limp in several appearances before the last one on September 3, no doubt inherits some of his father’s unhealthy genes and lifestyle.The conventional wisdom, reported by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, is that he may be suffering from gout. That’s described by the Mayo Clinic as “characterized by sudden, severe attacks of pain, redness and tenderness in joints, often the joint at the base of the big toe.”
The pain would be terrible: “An acute attack of gout can wake you up in the middle of the night with the sensation that your big toe is on fire.” Causes relate to drinking and obesity – certainly a risk factor in Kim Jong-un, who some observers think has been gaining weight since taking over the reins after his father’s lavish funeral.
A power struggle at the top, however, may also be in play here. The evidence lies in an artfully bland KCNA report on the “2nd session of the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly” held in Pyongyang this week. Kim Jong-un’s name does not come up until the tail end of the report. The absence of Kim Jong-un — or any mention of his name at the session — is strange indeed considering that he has the titles of first secretary of the Workers’ Party, first chairman of the national defense commission and supreme commander of the Korean people’s army – all represented on the occasion.
Stranger still, not until the final sentences of the lengthy report do we see the news of portentous shifts in the National Defense Commission, the real center of power. Choe Ryong-hae, a former vice marshal and head of the political bureau of the Korean People’s Army – the term covers the entire armed forces – had been “recalled,” said the report, in English, as vice chairman of the commission.
In his place, Hwang Pyong-so, recently made a vice marshal, assumed the title of vice chairman and also that of head of the KPA’s politburo, a position seen as second only to the KPA commander, Kim Jong-un. The changes in the National Defense Commission were made “at the proposal of Kim Jong-un,” according to the KCNA report.
[Donald Kirk, writing in Forbes]