In the end, it turned out to be a non-story. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un appeared in public and cut the ribbon to open a fertiliser factory and, with that, snipped all speculation over whether he was dead or alive.
In the time of COVID-19 and total attention on the corona pandemic, this was one issue that still managed to make global headlines. For anyone given to salivating on gossip and intrigue, the Korean mystery was a page-turner engaging the listless millions in the confines of their corona-shut homes.
But, seriously, the issue is not only about Kim’s fate as an individual. There is a lot riding on him, both within North Korea and elsewhere.
As North Korea’s ruler since 2011, Kim in his own way has attempted to loosen life within the country, make it a tad more flexible even allowing some sort of private trade within a strictly state-controlled set up.
Globally, Kim has waltzed big time with United States President Donald Trump on the issue of de-nuclearising North Korea in return for lifting of life-sapping sanctions against the country.
Not much progress has been made on how to implement an agreement.
But, two summits – Singapore in 2018 and Hanoi in 2019 – and an impromptu meeting between them across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas are in themselves seen as unprecedented progress towards de-nuclearisation that has the potential to etch Trump’s name in American history and turn Kim into a statesman.
And, a possible Nobel prize for both.
Few would contest the claim that the talks to de-nuclearise North Korea was an ice-breaker, in more ways than one. Resembling in some ways the other totalitarian state Saudi Arabia and its young leader Mohammad bin Salman, or MBS, who has set out to reform some of the rigid practices of the Islamic country, Kim too has stepped out of his comfort zone and tried something that could bring peace to the Korean region that has been on the edge for at least seven decades.
The caveat in the case of both MBS and Kim is that their “friendly” moves have been accompanied by ruthless steps to consolidate control within their respective countries, including even political assassinations of perceived rivals.
The young Kim in his 30’s has turned out to be a big-ticket political leader, trying his hand at easing relations with his fraternal neighbour South Korea. His attempt to restore friendly relations with Seoul has been widely acknowledged and perceived to be genuine. The high point was his meeting Trump on the border with South Korea and exuding a geniality that is not normally associated with the grim stereotypes of North Korean dictators.
Trump, matching Kim’s unpredictability in many ways, simply tweeted an impulsive invite for the North Korean Chairman to meet him. Matching this unprecedented mode of invite, Kim arrived at the stipulated time on June 30 last year much to the relief of US officials who feared Trump would be snubbed by his North Korean counterpart.
The level of informality resuscitated the de-nuclearisation talks which had gone into coma after the failure of the summits in Singapore and Hanoi. A third summit was even being speculated sometime this year.
Therefore, what makes Kim in some ways indispensable at this time is he has demonstrated his intention to meet at least midway the demands of the Western world led by the United States.
Of course the reason for his effusiveness is also that North Korea is struggling under international sanctions and depends mainly on neighbouring China’s favour to see it through economically and otherwise.
The North Korean leader aged around 36 potentially has a long way to go in power. And, what the world has seen of him for the last nine years since he took over the office is clear that he is different from his father, the late Kim Jong-il who was far more reclusive and a hard-nosed leader with contempt bordering on hatred for the West.
The other interesting element of the present-day Kim is that he was schooled in Berne, Switzerland. It is obvious he has picked up valuable lessons in the art of western diplomacy where politeness and civility do not indicate weakness or a compromise of national interests.
Within his country, Kim has subtly altered the political sub-structure after succeeding his father. Over time, he has reduced the power of the military in governance and increased the clout of the ruling Korea Workers’ Party.
In doing this, Kim has ensured tight control and status quo of the politico-administrative structure.
The military, always seen as a threat, has either been serenaded by the rulers or confined in its place. Kim has chosen the latter.
His sister Kim Yo-jong was being reported to be a possible replacement in the event the worst had come to pass for Kim. The reason is they work closely and have literally grown up together, having lived life under the same roof, when schooling in Berne. An elder brother Kim Jong Chol, on the contrary, has never been entertained either by him or his father as he was considered “too soft” for politics.
His sister has played a key role in his government – advising him – and manages his public image and appearances besides information management.
It is also entirely possible that North Korea is not entirely dependant on a single individual or a family – this is the narrative largely arising out of the country’s insulated existence, where independent media is frowned upon and foreigners are physically monitored from arrival to departure.
A slew of missile launches, at least eight of them, in March shows that the secretive nation may not be a one-horse power and that its scientific and economic infrastructure may be far more advanced than outsiders are willing to give it credit for.
Now that Kim is back in the reckoning, alive and well, he may have more surprises in store for the world. The ball is rolling again, for Pyongyang and the Korean peninsula.