Is it gout, or is he out? If we’re grasping at explanations for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s un-expected and un-explained absence over the past month, there can be only two: either he’s indisposed, or he’s deposed.
Actually, that’s not true. Considering the grand tradition of un-predictability in the Hermit Kingdom, there are countless other possibilities. The Supreme Leader may have been in a mountainside retreat, composing new condemnations against America’s comedians. Or in an underground bunker, yelling at his nation’s meteorologists for their inability to control the weather. Or off in a North Korean forest, riding one of those North Korean unicorns. Or—just as inconceivable and absurd—sentencing entire generations of North Korean families to labor camps. To say nothing of the distraction executing one’s own uncle can be.
I’ll even propose other bread crumbs to follow. Kim may be chaperoning George and Amal’s honeymoon. Or hiding out so he doesn’t get Ebola. I imagine him squirreled away in a cabin “somewhere north of Pyongyang,” bingeing on the novel of Gone Girl before he sees the movie. Spoiler alert, Kim: don’t let your wife read it too.
Such a buffet of possibilities suggests one of the benefits of being an isolated leader in an isolated country: You can pretty much do your own thing, at least for a while. After all, we usually know exactly where President Obama is: tying up Los Angeles traffic on his way to Gwyneth Paltrow’s place. (Boom! Fundraising snap!) But Kim’s sheepishness and his precise whereabouts have captured our attention in a way usually reserved for missing blond sorority girls. Forget Carmen San Diego: where in the world is Kim Jong Un?
Wherever the Supreme Leader may be, even though he didn’t show up at the 69th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s Workers’ Party on Friday, I highly suspect that the rumors of his death—like that story about his father shooting 11 holes-in-one during his very first round of golf—are greatly exaggerated.
When I had the odd fortune of visiting North Korea with Gov. Bill Richardson last year, Kim didn’t show up for our meeting either. Naturally, I assumed it was because my jump-shot wasn’t good enough. But the Governor and I did have a meeting with Kim’s father and grandfather, Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, on the exact spot where Kim Jong Un was a no show on Friday morning: standing next to the embalmed bodies of the former leaders in their mausoleum, the Kamsusan Palace of the Sun.
Standing so close to so infamous a duo looking so lifelike—Madame Tussaud’s got nothing on North Korea’s embalmers—and being surrounded by military police paying their respects reinforces the idea that North Korea’s leaders aren’t mere heads of state but religious figures who won’t be forgotten as time goes by. And depending on which North Korea-watcher you ask, it’s fair to say that even if the youngest Kim has passed from this mortal realm, it’s not likely much would change. Let’s not forget that when Kim took power a couple years ago, optimism that he would reach out to the West in ways his ancestors hadn’t was quickly eclipsed by the sound of saber-rattling, nuclear tests powering up, and missiles being redirected toward the South.
The only real evidence that something may have changed in the DPRK is not whether Kim may be deposed or disposed, but how he was treated when he was still in mixed company. For a country that stage manages everything—on our visit, we were granted a tour a disconcertingly Potemkin-like “internet classroom” where “students” gazed longingly at monitors displaying what looked far too much like what “the internet” is supposed to look like—Kim’s most recent public appearances showed him having troubling, well, managing the stage.
Perhaps most inexplicable is his 55-second walk at an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of grandpa Kim Il Sung’s death, in which the Supreme Leader limped far from supremely across the seemingly endless stage as if there were a tack in his shoe. Knowing that this would stir up rumors of gout and broken ankles, one wonders why his handlers didn’t spare Kim the indignity of the forced march and simply launch him to the podium, MJ-style.
So exaggerations aside, it’s possible something more devious is—ahem—afoot. Kim may be feeling more than mere “discomfort.” He may be dead, a victim of North Korean-style regicide, or merely of eating too much imported cheese—everything’s possible. But even if he’s dead for good, it might not be for long. This is country that keeps even unicorns alive. And they’ve been extinct forever.