Amid rumors that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is ill, vegetative, dying, or dead, we have to be skeptical. But first, I have a few things to say. North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (an aside: a history teacher of mine once said “No country with ‘democratic’ in its name is ever democratic), is a bizarre country. I’ve been fascinated by it for years simply because it is a remarkable outlier in the global stage. Here’s a very quick history lesson.
Pyongyang, the DPRK’s capital, is and always has been a Potemkin city. Most buildings are skeletons and what little evidence of “normal” life you see from photos taken in North Korea are frequently staged by the government, which will not let any foreigners tour the country without an official government guide.
For a brief period of time after the final drawing of the 38th Parallel in 1953 and creation of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the Koreas, North Korea was actually doing a fair amount better than South Korea (the Republic of Korea, which is very much a democracy). The Kim Il-sung regime looked poised to be a shining beacon of communism next to its poor, but free neighbor to the south, which was at the time led by an American ally named Syngman Rhee.
To keep it brief, things changed dramatically over the next half century. North Korea, hoisted by its own communist petard, became the world’s most infamous nanny state, directly or indirectly killing untold numbers of its own people to keep an iron-fisted grip on power. Its economy hasn’t seen anything resembling success for half a century, and its people are deeply impoverished and have little to no concept of the world outside North Korea thanks to ubiquitous government indoctrination that starts at birth. South Korea, during the same half century, has become one of the most technologically advanced and wealthy nations on earth.
Poor and largely irrelevant on the global stage, North Korea has developed a staggeringly unusual and dangerous way of showing its regional hegemony — the threat of nuclear weapons capabilities. Nuclear weapons are practically fetishized by North Korean leadership. This has been of special concern of Americans because, since their civil war, the United States has been their number one enemy and logical first target in the event of a strike. So what does all this history have to do with the Kim Jong-un death rumors?
Well, simply put, from what I know about North Korea, rumors coming from them should be especially scrutinized. For example, while farfetched, I would not be at all surprised if representatives from the DPRK announced the young Kim’s death, followed a few days later by an announcement that he resurrected because he’s magical. In other words, an elaborate ruse to rile internal support for war. You think that’s stupid? Check out this article about how myths have driven his nuclear plans. Again, it’s farfetched, but then so is everything else about North Korea. Bottom line: I couldn’t even guess on Kim’s health status. Until we get solid evidence that Kim Jong-un is ill or dead, be skeptical.