Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean refugee elected to South Korea’s National Assembly in April, told the Yonhap news service on Friday he believes there is a “99 percent” chance dictator Kim Jong-un is dead.
Ji’s declaration is the first of its level of confidence from an official on the record regarding Kim’s health, which has prompted global speculation since the dictator failed to show for North Korea’s Day of the Sun on April 15. The Day of the Sun is North Korea’s most important holiday, the birthday of Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung.
Since Kim stopped making public appearances in mid-April, a variety of rumors have suggested that Kim may have had a heart attack, had heart surgery, contracted coronavirus, been injured in a military missile test, entered a vegetative state, simply relocated to his beachside compound, or died. Most reports have cited anonymous “officials” in the South Korean, American, and Chinese governments.
“I’ve wondered how long he could have endured after cardiovascular surgery. I’ve been informed that Kim died last weekend,” Ji told Yonhap, suggesting that Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, would likely take over. “It is not 100 percent certain, but I can say the possibility is 99 percent. North Korea is believed to be grappling with a complicated succession issue.”
Yonhap emphasized that it could not independently verify his assertion and that Ji “did not reveal the source of where he got his information.”
Ji himself is North Korean and has friends and family in the country still. He is of a family of low caste, or songbun, with no known ties to any senior officials. Ji escaped despite having multiple limbs amputated as a child, making the arduous journey from North Korea across China and into the South especially difficult. Now a lawmaker, he rose to international prominence after appearing as a presidential guest at President Donald Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address.
Ji was elected in South Korea’s national legislative election on April 15, the first in-person voting of its scale to occur amid the current Chinese coronavirus epidemic. The 14 days scientists believe it takes for the virus to show symptoms elapsed this week; South Korean officials confirmed no known coronavirus infections occurred from human-to-human contact during the election.
In addition to Ji, South Koreans elected another defector, former diplomat Thae Jong-ho, to their National Assembly. Ji was elected via proportional vote; Thae became the first North Korean refugee to be elected as a candidate in the direct voting system. Both represent conservative political parties.
Ji’s remarks followed remarks by Taiwan’s national security chief suggesting that Kim Jong-un is “sick” and may not survive.
National Security Bureau Director-General Chiu Kuo-cheng reportedly told the nation’s legislature that he was “sick,” adding no more comment when asked if he was alive.
Speculation over Kim’s health reached a fever pitch after CNN published an anonymously sourced report that Kim was in “grave danger” after allegedly undergoing cardiac surgery. Subsequent reports in South Korean outlets such as Dong-A Ilbo and JoongAng Ilbo suggested that Kim, instead, may be suffering from Chinese coronavirus infection. The former outlet claimed a source believed he was injured at a missile test.
Other reports suggested that Kim was healthy but feared being infected with the virus. Satellite images from Wonsan, a port city Kim has attempted and failed to turn into a resort destination, indicate that Kim’s personal train is in the city and his private yachts are active, a sign that he is alive and merely enjoying a getaway.
North Korea claims to have not documented a single case of Chinese coronavirus officially, making it difficult for Kim to admit to having to quarantine if he was exposed to the virus in any way, including meetings with Chinese officials. While denying any cases, North Korea has shut its borders and announced the construction of a large hospital in Pyongyang, suggesting a need for greater healthcare infrastructure.
“We have intelligence capacity that allows us to say confidently that there are no unusual signs,” Kim Yeon-chul, South Korae’s unification minister, said on Tuesday. Kim referred to the rumors as “fake news” and reiterated Seoul’s loud insistence that Kim is healthy.
North Korean state media have not addressed the rumors in any way. Last week, North Korea claimed Kim was active, sending birthday greetings to various people in the country and diplomatic greetings to international allies. On Friday – a communist holiday known as International Workers’ Day – North Korean media barely mentioned Kim, instead publishing effusive communist propaganda to celebrate.
“At a time when all the people are vigorously opening a broad avenue of socialist advance under the banner of self-reliance, we are significantly commemorating the 130th May Day, the international holiday of the working people in the world,” an article in Rodong Sinmun, the North Korean national newspaper, read. The article was titled “Let All the Working People Vigorously Open Road of Advance in Frontal Offensive for Making Breakthrough, Glorifying History and Traditions of Heroic Struggle.”
“In this new century of Juche [the North Korean religion of ‘self-reliance’], their dignity, position and role are rapidly rising under the wise leadership of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un,” the article continued. “Only our working people are leading the most worthwhile and proud life in the world, demonstrating their independent dignity under the leadership of the great Party.”