It’s really too bad there was no sure answer to what he’s been doing – no clue as to whether he was enjoying the time off, relaxing and reading or really suffering while foreign doctors examined him from head to toe.
In fact, his reemergence in the Pyongyang state media opens a new chapter of ever more speculation as to what had befallen him, whether he’s personally in command or the puppet on strings pulled by mysterious figures led by the man so often described as his number two, Hwang Pyong-so, vice marshal and vice chairman of the national defense commission. The speculation won’t stop just because his pictures have run on the front page of the Workers’ Party paper Rodong Sinmun, but for now let us forget about upheaval in the ruling structure in Pyongyang. Sure, something may be rotten in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but who knows?
All of which comes as a bitter disappointment for those looking for tales of conflict and crisis in Pyongyang. For years now, whenever people believed, finally, “collapse” was at hand, North Korea failed to collapse. Forecasts of “implosion,” a favorite word of analysts to describe the North caving in upon itself under enormous political and economic pressures, somehow turn out to be premature. Wait until next year, or next decade — or never.
So how was Kim Jong-un spending his days and nights as reports proliferated of maybe the end of the Kim dynasty? For one thing, he, his doctors and handlers had to decide, dare we show him to our people, and the rest of the world, brandishing a walking stick? What would North Korea’s 24 million people think if he were so weak as to need a cane to get around? Finally they settled on a dark model that looks rather like the swagger stick that military commanders sometimes carry as they strut before their troops. The idea is to enhance, not diminish, his image.
While on leave from normal duties, Kim also has to have watched his diet. The latest photographs indicate he’s lost maybe 20 kilograms, more than 40 pounds. Medical specialists flown in to advise and cure him no doubt warned of the dangers of gluttony while attending to his leg and probably other perhaps more serious ailments.
But why was Kim not resuscitated in time for the 69th anniversary Friday of the founding of the Workers’ Party? If he could be seen smiling happily on Monday at a newly built complex for the nation’s scientific elite, could he not have been revived for a brief appearance at the final resting place of his dynastic forebears, grandfather Kim Il-sung and father Kim Jong-il? Or did his handlers decide he had to appear only after seeing all that wild speculation in the foreign media after his non-appearance and deciding they had to nip in the bid those reports of a power struggle, maybe a coup d’etat?
We might also ask, however, why the young man needed a cane at all after having been seen on state TV limping without one before disappearing from public view in early September. Did it really take 40 days to treat his leg? What exactly was the problem? Gout, as initially reported? Tendonitis – or a tendon that snapped while crawling in the mud in a grueling military exercise, heaving and panting with the troops? (Seriously, that was the gist of one report — a picture that’s hard to imagine in real life.)
Or, as another rumor suggested, had this grossly overweight figurehead broken an ankle alighting from the white horse on which he’s often been heroically photographed? Before his vanishing act, his weight had climbed to about 130 kilograms, way past the threshold of obesity for one about 1.75 meters tall – five feet, nine inches. Those statues of fat generals on prancing stallions to the contrary, it’s dangerous for an obese person to jump too hard and fast off a horse,.
Ok, it’s beyond the realm of realpolitik and reality to think we’ll ever get answers to what Kim Jong-un was doing while on leave from affairs of state. We can count, however, on ever more speculation. Next up for consideration: what styles of cane he’ll be carrying and how often he’ll be out and about. All judgments will no doubt be unsubstantiated – as indeed we’ve come to expect in reports on crises in North Korea in the absence of real evidence of portentous events that may or may not be going on.