Trouble in Pyongyang

Has North Korea’s Kim Jong Un Been Toppled?

Out of sight for a month, young Kim is supposedly ill. But rumors are swirling he’s been deposed—and North Korea’s second most powerful man now feels confident enough to travel South.

10.06.14 2:25 AM ET

Hwang Pyong So must be feeling pretty good about himself right now. At the latest Supreme People’s Assembly meeting, he was made vice chairman of the National Defense Commission. This was after his promotion to director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army, making him the top political officer in the military. In a country where there is supposed to be no No. 2 official, he is called the second-most powerful figure.

Now he has crossed the border into South Korea on a one-day, short-notice trip, triggering hopes of reconciliation between the arch-rival republics—and heightening speculation about the fate of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s young supremo, who has not been seen in public since September 3.

Hwang’s trip South on Saturday comes on the heels of a widely publicized report that Kim has been deposed. Jang Jin Sung, a former North Korean counterintelligence and propaganda official, is claiming that the Organization and Guidance Department of the Korean Workers’ Party, responsible for promotions within the regime, has taken over the country. Kim, according to Jang, is now merely a “puppet.”

Leading Korea watchers, however, say they doubt Kim has lost his position at the center of the state founded by his grandfather and passed down to his father, his immediate predecessor. “This kind of travel would be way too out there if anything serious was going on in North Korea, so I don’t think it’s a sign of a coup,” John Delury of Yonsei University in Seoul told The Washington Post of Hwang’s jaunt down to Incheon, near the South Korean capital. Andrei Lankov of nearby Kookmin University, meanwhile, called the surprise visit merely a part of Pyongyang’s recent “charm offensive.” “North Korean diplomacy has been engaged in concerted, well-arranged, well-managed efforts to improve relations with pretty much the entire outside world,” he told the Post. “And you would not expect it to happen with nobody in control.”

Lankov and Delury make a commonsense point, but Jang, a defector to Seoul, maintains that Kim was removed from power last year. That means Hwang could have consolidated his position in the interim and now feels secure enough to travel for a day.

Indeed, there are signs that not only has Hwang risen, but also that Kim has fallen. The young ruler did not preside over last’s month meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the first time that has happened since he took power after his father’s death in December 2011. Yes, he may have been ill, but if he was politically healthy, the meeting would have been postponed until he was able to appear.

Also extremely unusual: The reports on the meeting from the state-run Korean Central News Agency mention Kim—first secretary of the Workers’ Party, first chairman of the National Defense Commission, and supreme commander of the People’s Army, all the top positions in the state and party—only at the end and only in passing. In a regime like North Korea’s, these state media reports spell political infirmity.

And is Kim Jong Un really ill? He was last seen in public walking with a limp—he probably has gout —and state media has reported he is not well, but that is not what one member of Hwang’s 11-member delegation told South Korea’s Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae on Saturday. The next day, Ryoo said he was assured that there were “no problems” with Kim’s health. But if Kim were well, there would have been no reason for him to have stayed out of sight for a month, especially during the Supreme People’s Assembly meeting.

It is true that Jang Jin Sung’s storyline may not completely add up. After all, as influential as the Organization and Guidance Department may be—some even think it is more important than the National Defense Commission—it is not an agency built to grab and exercise power.

Nonetheless, there are too many rumors and reports to allow one to conclude that all is well in Pyongyang. The story that the city is in lockdown —no permits to travel in or out issued since September 27—suggests that an extraordinary event has occurred. The mid-December execution of Jang Song Thaek, once thought to be Kim’s regent, and the subsequent eradication of his nationwide patronage network are symptoms of distress.

The continual purges during Kim’s short tenure cannot be a good sign. In the space of 15 months he switched out his army chief three times, and it appears he replaced about half of the top 218 military and administrative officials. Pyongyang, according to the Financial Times, has not seen such turmoil since the late 1950s, when his grandfather Kim Il Sung eliminated opposition after his failure in the Korean War. As famed Korea watcher Bruce Bechtol has pointed out, the constant purges of senior civilians and flag officers over the last few years is proof of Kim’s inability to cement his position at the top of the political system.

“Senior officials in North Korea’s Workers’ Party and military are increasingly objecting to policies or ignoring orders from leader Kim Jong Un, leading to rumors that his grip on the country is weakening,” noted the Chosun Ilbo, the most widely read newspaper in South Korea, in late July. Defying instructions would have been unthinkable during the tenure of his father or grandfather.

Of course, in the world’s most opaque regime, almost any scenario is plausible. We should know a lot more, however, when we see who is on the reviewing stand during the October 10 celebration of the founding of the Workers’ Party.

Until then, we can say there are signs that Kim Jong Un has lost substantial power and will soon become, if he is not already, a figurehead.