North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is either dead, brain dead or just fine, depending on which Asian media report you believe.
The dictator, nicknamed “Rocket Man” by President Trump for his love of missile launches and nukes, underwent a stent procedure earlier this month that started a swirl of international speculation.
A Hong Kong broadcast network claimed Saturday that Kim died, citing a “very solid source.” A Japanese magazine, meanwhile, reported late Friday that he is in “a vegetative state.” On Kim’s home turf, the North Korean media has acted as if everything is perfectly normal.
Other unconfirmed reports, attributed to senior Community Party sources in Beijing, claimed Kim succumbed when his surgeon botched the minor operation because his hands were shaking so badly.
The portly leader’s absence from Saturday’s much-ballyhooed 88th anniversary of the birth of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army further fueled the death talk.
Earlier in the week, President Trump downplayed reports that Kim is ill, and an official familiar with U.S. intelligence said the government had no reason to conclude he was seriously ill.
Still, the whispers grew louder when China dispatched medical experts to help treat Kim, Reuters reported Friday.
One Chinese medic told the Japanese magazine that the leader clutched his chest and fell to the ground on a visit to the countryside earlier this month. A doctor accompanying Kim performed CPR and took him to a nearby hospital, where apparently the procedure was performed.
If Kim is dead, official verification might only come from North Korea state media, which delayed the announcements of the deaths of Kim’s despotic predecessors, his father and grandfather, for up to four days.
“When it comes to North Korea you can never be too sure until you hear the news from the country itself,” said David Maxwell, a North Korea specialist at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “But it’s worth noting that there are 6.5 million smartphones in North Korea now and even though the coverage is within the country, information has a way of getting out faster now than it did in the past.”
Maxwell theorized the coronavirus could have been a contributing factor if Kim turns out to be dead, especially since he has underlying conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. North Korea has claimed zero COVID-19 cases but could be lying, Maxwell said.
Kim has been supreme leader since 2011, when his father, Kim Jong Il reportedly died of a heart attack. Kim Jong Il had succeeded his father, Kim Il Sung, who died of a heart attack in 1994.
As for Kim’s potential successor, the smart money is on his little sister, Kim Yo Jong, 31. She is thought to be the youngest child of Kim Jong Il’s mistress Ko Yong Hui, who also gave birth to Kim and his older brother, Kim Jong Chol.
Besides being Kim’s chief aide, Kim Yo Jong is really the only family member left to take over.
Kim had his older half-brother assassinated in Malaysia in 2017. And Kim Jong Chol, who is three years older and known to be a superfan of Eric Clapton, was once dismissed as too “girlish” by their father to run the murderous regime.
“It would be unprecedented and shocking for there to be a female Great Leader but it wouldn’t be heresy,” Sung-Yoon Lee, a North Korea expert at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Diplomacy, told The Post. “The need to keep power in the family trumps everything, including any traditions of chauvinism or misogyny in North Korea.”
North Korea will likely shut down every inch of the border in the event of Kim’s death, Maxwell said, and the country’s Politburo will meet behind closed doors to designate his successor.
Both Kim Jong Un and his sister spent part of their childhood in Swiss boarding schools, where they learned English and had more than a taste of Western life.
Additional reporting by Jon Levine and Melanie Gray