'It's quite possible': Expert's grim theory on Kim Jong-un's health

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While South Korean and Chinese officials have dismissed US reports North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is “gravely ill”, an expert in Asian affairs says anything is possible given the secrecy of the country.

Reacting to speculation over Kim’s health following a cardiovascular surgery, the Australian National University’s John Blaxland, a professor in international security and intelligence, said his situation could deteriorate quickly.

Speaking on Nine’s Today show on Wednesday, and asked if Kim could be in serious trouble or even dead given his documented poor health, Professor Blaxland said “it’s quite possible”.

“Both his father and grandfather died of a similar condition,” he said.

Kim’s health has repeatedly come under the spotlight in recent years, with speculation fuelled by his heavy smoking and obesity.

There has been concern over Kim's weight and health for some time. Source: Getty
There has been concern over Kim's weight and health for some time. Source: Getty

Daily NK, a Seoul-based speciality website reported on Tuesday, AEST, that Kim, who is believed to be about 36, was recovering after undergoing the procedure on April 12.

It cited one unnamed source in North Korea.

Conflicting reports over Kim Jong-un’s condition

Two South Korean government officials rejected a subsequent CNN report citing an unnamed US official saying the United States was “monitoring intelligence” that Kim was in grave danger after surgery, but they did not elaborate on whether Kim might have undergone surgery.

South Korea’s presidential Blue House said there were no unusual signs from North Korea.

President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that the United States doesn't know the condition of North Korean leader, but wishes him well.

Robert O’Brien, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, told Fox News the White House is monitoring the reports “very closely.”

Bloomberg News quoted an unnamed US official as saying the White House was told that Kim had taken a turn for the worse after the surgery.

However, authoritative US sources familiar with US intelligence questioned the report that Kim was in grave danger.

A Korea specialist working for the US government said: “Any credible direct reporting having to do with Kim would be highly compartmented intelligence and unlikely to leak to the media.”

Kim’s poor health fuelled by obesity and smoking

Kim’s health has repeatedly come under the spotlight in recent years, with speculation fuelled by his heavy smoking and obesity.

Anna Fifield, the Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief and recent author of Kim biography The Great Successor, said on Tuesday his health has been a concern for some time.

“You don’t need to be a doctor to see he is extremely unhealthy,” she said.

“He is 36 years old but he seems to walk and breathe and move around like a very old person.”

Ms Fifield said experts had predicted his weight it roughly 136kg, and combined with his height of 5ft7, he is deemed “extremely obese”.

Vipin Narang, a professor of political science at MIT and expert in nuclear weapons issues and strategy, told CNN he is “usually pessimistic” on such matters however the current speculation has some merit.

“You have a guy who's obese, a chronic smoker, has gout, presumably some form of diabetes. They've surely thought about this contingency given his health.”

North Korea’s secrecy makes verifying sources difficult

Kim is a third-generation hereditary leader who rules North Korea with an iron fist, coming to power after his father Kim Jong Il died in 2011 from a heart attack. He is the sole commander of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, which Trump tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to give up in 2018 and 2019 summits.

Reporting from inside highly-secretive North Korea is notoriously difficult, especially on matters concerning its leadership, given tight controls on information, particularly regarding Kim.

Ms Fifield stressed however such speculation coming from North Korea needs to be treated with a certain level of doubt.

“We always need to be extremely cautious about speculation from North Korea because it's very difficult to verify,” she explained on Twitter on Tuesday.

There have been past false reports regarding its leaders, but the fact Kim has no clear successor means any instability could present a major international risk.

Asked about how any North Korean political succession would work, US presidential advisor Robert O’Brien said: “The basic assumption would be maybe it would be someone in the family. But, again, it’s too early to talk about that because we just don’t know what condition Chairman Kim is in and we’ll have to see how it plays out.”

Recent meetings give insight into Kim’s health

In recent years, Kim has launched a diplomatic offensive to promote himself as a world leader, holding three meetings with Trump, four with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and five with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Ms Fifield said those meetings had enabled the world to get a glimpse of his true health.

“So of course we see him on official North Korean television which is all highly edited and is all part of the propaganda of North Korea but we got an exclusive glimpse into his health and real situation when he came out in 2018,” she said.

FILE - In this June 30, 2019 file photo, President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, South Korea. President Donald Trump starts the new year knee-deep in daunting foreign policy challenges at the same time he'll have to deal with a likely impeachment trial in the Senate and the demands of a reelection campaign. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
Donald Trump meets with Kim Jong Un. Source: AP

“At that time doctors tried to assess and glean as much information as they could about his health. So for example, they counted how many breaths per minute he was doing and they concluded he was either very nervous or he was really struggling to breathe.”

China is North Korea’s only major ally. Speaking to Reuters, an official at the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, which deals with North Korea, expressed the belief that Kim was not critically ill.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing was aware of reports about Kim’s health, but said it does not know their source, without commenting on whether it has any information about the situation.

Daily NK said Kim was hospitalised on April 12, hours before the cardiovascular procedure, as his health had deteriorated since August due to heavy smoking, obesity and overwork. It said he was now receiving treatment at a villa in the Mount Myohyang resort north of the capital Pyongyang.

“My understanding is that he had been struggling (with cardiovascular problems) since last August but it worsened after repeated visits to Mount Paektu,” a source was quoted as saying, referring to the country’s sacred mountain.

Kim took two well-publicised rides on a stallion on the mountain’s snowy slopes in October and December.

Speculation about Kim’s health first arose due to his absence from the anniversary of the birthday of North Korea’s founding father and Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.

North Korea’s official KCNA news agency gave no indication of his whereabouts in routine dispatches on Tuesday, but said he had sent birthday gifts to prominent citizens.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to comment on the matter at a press conference on Tuesday until he received confirmation of Kim’s state.

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