Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The news from Pyongyang: no news

The other day I wrote about the delay of the much anticipated (outside of North Korea) meeting of the Workers Party, where it was widely expected (outside of North Korea) that Kim Jong-il's youngest son, Kim Jong-un, would be installed as next leader.

Well, it looks like other North Korea observers are catching up with me. Christine Kim of the Joongang Daily has more details than I provided:
A deterioration in the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has delayed a long-awaited Workers’ Party meeting in Pyongyang, a South Korean government official told the JoongAng Daily yesterday.

But Kim is not ill enough for the meeting to be canceled altogether and it will be convened soon, said the official, who asked not to be identified. The communist leader’s health worsened after his unexpected visit to China last month, according to the source.
If it's true that the trip across the Amnok so taxed him that he couldn't convene the meeting, could it be that he really is in such frail health (despite my own predictions that he could be around longer than many Pyongyang watchers have predicted) that the sudden trip to China was necessitated by his imminent demise? Wow. That could mean Kim Jong-un or whichever sibling gets the green light could be in for a rougher ride than we thought.

Meanwhile, Professor Andrei Lankov, perhaps the most famous North Korea watcher in the anglophone world right now, opined about the meaning of this "non-event":
So, what might have gone wrong? Since we are dealing with North Korea, which is frequently described as the “world’s most secretive society”, nothing is known for sure, and one has to remain skeptical even in regard to the rumors which are likely to start emanating from North Korean in near future. Nonetheless, some possibilities should be considered.

First, it is possible that the North Korean elite is far less united than it is usually assumed, so some factions are seriously unhappy about the likely choice of successor and/or expected composition of the new leadership (a formal appointment of new top officials is an important part of the conference ritual). They might have managed somehow to block the conference, while Kim Jong Il is unable or unwilling to restore the order. This fighting might unroll among the top functionaries of the regime, but it might as well be an internal feud within the ruling family among whose members, one must suspect, not everybody is happy about the recent choice of successor.
I'm going to ruin the suspense and tell you that the next two possibilities are "the growing inability of Kim Jong Il to pass reasonable judgments and make rational decisions, his tendency to follow impulses and emotions," and Kim Jong Il now being "too sick to make an expected public appearance at the conference." Despite that spoiler, go read the Lankov article. His work is always worth your time if you're interested in DPRK intrigue.

The Economist is running with Lankov's article and drawing its own possible conclusions about what it all means:
Something seems to have gone awry. Perhaps Kim Jong Il, said to have suffered a stroke two years back, is in bad health. Perhaps the elite are bridling at the imposition of his 27-year-old son. Perhaps one of the Kims had better things to do. Perhaps the elder one simply decided on a delay. “Such sudden changes of mind,” notes Mr Lankov, “are not unexpected when we deal with a stroke patient.” But, as he goes on: “this particular patient seemingly has a complete control over the nuclear-powered nation of 24m.”
I'm going to chime in again with my admonishment that being a stroke victim is not the same as being in bad health from, say, cancer. Having suffered from a stroke is like having been shot: If you survive the injury, the same stroke can't keep trying to kill you just like the same bullet doesn't come back to get you. You are likely at higher risk of a future stroke, but once you're out of the woods with the original stroke, it can't come back and get you. Like with a bullet wound, your impairment from the stroke is not something that gets worse over time (except insofar as lack of use of limbs or the brain may lead to atrophy).

Of course, Kim Jong-il reportedly has other ailments, including liver disease, pancreatic cancer, diabetes, etc., etc. Not even Obamacare can save him, so we're told. But please remember that so much of this is speculative, and I'm not so sure that what we see of his condition indicates anything other than a relatively healthy sexagenarian who has overcome a stroke. And if I'm right, that makes him more of a survivor.

The caveat of my admonishment, of course, is that all those on-the-spot guidance trips could actually be pictures of his doppelgänger (this link is a favorite).

At Pyongyang People's Eatery #37, the Dear Leader gives on-the-spot guidance about dumbwaiter maintenance and operation.

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