Palaces of Ruling Elites Remain Enigmatic
By Andrei Lankov
Korea Times Columnist
The last two weeks have been a very busy time for all Pyongyang watchers. If widely discussed rumors are to be believed, the North Korean leader has been seriously sick, perhaps, being treated by a team of foreign doctors after a stroke. His health was discussed in great detail, while journalists and pundits worldwide were engaged in suggesting various scenarios post-Kim future.
Well, all this was a good pastime, to be sure. However, no reader of the recent publications should forget: all those theories and speculations are based on the thinnest of thin evidence.
What do we know for sure? Not much. About two weeks ago some South Korean newspapers (obviously with good connections within the government agencies) reported that Kim Jong-il was sick. Soon new reports stated that he had suffered a stroke, but is in stable conditions.
The South Korean and American governments confirmed that they received some intelligence about North Korean leader's illness (it was a relatively unusual move). Needless to say, they were not too specific. Finally, Kim did not show up at a military parade, which marked the 60th anniversary of North Korean state. This was a rather serious sigh, since normally he would be expected to attend such a symbolically charged event.
All this indeed indicates or might indicate that something has happened to the ``Dear Leader.'' However, how serious his problems are? To start with, no unusual moves are noticeable in Pyongyang. The North Korean capital continues its normal life.
The top leaders meet with visiting foreign dignitaries. It is true that he did not attend the 60th anniversary parade, but it is clear that the celebrations were designed with assumption that ``Dear Leader'' would not bless the event with his august presence.
The regular army was replaced with militia units, and foreign guests were allowed to take cameras, normally forbidden on the VIP seats if the great man is present. Finally, as every North Korea watcher with sufficient experience remembers, similar rumors have been heard a number of times in the past and were never proven to be correct although one should admit, this time the rumors were more persistent than usual.
Seemingly it indicates that Kim indeed has some health problems and, quite likely, is now undergoing some treatment. But is also seems that the problem is not seen by the Pyongyang leadership as urgent or sudden.
If some rumors the present author has heard before are correct, it appears that preparations for his treatment have been underway for few months. This considerably increases chances for medically successful outcome, and therefore, at all likelihood, the ``Great Marshal of the Revolution'' will return to his quite luxurious command post in few weeks or months.
There is nothing unusual when a man in his late 60s, suffering from diabetes and kidney disease and rather unhealthy lifestyle has medical problems which requires a stay in the hospital. Even stroke, though we cannot be sure whether it was indeed stroke, is not very surprising, but with the best available doctors the patient is likely to recover completely or almost completely.
However, this wave of speculating reminded us of two things. First, Kim is mortal, and he will die sooner or later. This appears a very banal statement, but it often seems that decision makers, especially in Seoul, tend to forget this truism.
Second, it is still useful to realize that our knowledge of North Korea's high politics remains limited to the extreme. The recent reports which provided the audience with details of Kim's treatment or his recovery can be safely dismissed as fantasies.
Of course, one cannot complete rule out that some intelligence service has managed to infiltrate Kim's entourage though the present author is rather skeptical about this supposition.
However, even if this is the case, spies are not famous for their willingness to share their findings with general public. Loose lips not necessarily sink ships but definitely kill agents. The lay observers, however, do not know much. Our knowledge of North Korean life has increased remarkably in recent years, but the palaces of the ruling elite still remain enigmatic.
Take, for example, the talks about succession, the endless speculations on who of the three or four possible candidates will succeed Kim. Will it be his older son, Kim Jong-nam? Or should we place our bets on the second son, Kim Jong-chol? Or, perhaps, we should take seriously the current chief wife of the Dear Leader, Kim Ok? In recent weeks, we have heard a lot of speculations like this, but we should not forget that we know almost nothing about any of those candidates.
This is a great difference with the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union which, when compared with North Korea, appears to be a democratic and transparent place. In the case of the USSR the outside observers could check track records of more or less any Politburo member, and then surmise which policies he would execute if appointed to the supreme position within the party-state hierarchy. It did not necessarily help, but at least some food for thought was available.
In Korea all names of the top bosses are empty symbols without any known content. This does not mean that those people do not have their own political (at all probability they do), but this means that we do not know enough to surmise what those views are.
Well, what do we know of Kim's children? We know that Kim Jong-nam is obese, spends much time in China and perhaps likes gambling. We know even less about his brother, Kim Jong-chol. Yes, he studied in Switzerland, but does it make necessarily make him a potential reformer? Probably not. Their new stepmother, Kim Ok, is a complete unknown.
Even less is known about rows of the medal-clad generals or mysterious bureaucrats who appear on major functions and then disappear in obscurity. A life-long Pyongyang observer and a senior diplomat recently told the author about great surprise he experienced while inspecting a cemetery for top cadres in Pyongyang:
``I realized that we had no clue about many people who in their lifetime were key figures in the hierarchy.'' Tombstones there give the full positions of the diseased. And this was a confession of a person who has access to classified information, has spent decades in Pyongyang and enjoys an unusually good access to top leaders.
Of course, the rumor mills will never stop, and we will be treated to more and more stories about Kim, his children and political debate in Pyongyang. It is also possible that many decades later, historians will discover that some of those stories are generally correct, after all, the absolute information isolation cannot be maintained, somebody al\ways say something. However, we also can be sure that only a fraction of these rumors are true. And, unfortunately, in our current situation it is not normally possible to sort out those tiny grains of truthful information.