Speculation over health of Kim Jong-Un and his Nation
The unprecedented absence of North Korea’s leader from its most important state celebration, the Day of the Sun on 15 April, has fuelled speculation as to the health of Kim Jong-Un. Suggestions from Daily NK – news supplied largely from defectors – is that the leader has recently received heart surgery. No confirmation of this has been made to date however. Another theory is that the leader is being protected from Covid-19, since Kim Jong-Un is often seen in close physical contact with people, offering handshakes and hugs, which make him vulnerable to the virus.
This secrecy surrounding his health inevitably extends to the health of the entire ‘hermit kingdom’. While thousands have been quarantined, borders closed and tourists and foreign diplomats seen off, the government still insists there are ‘no cases in the country’.
Kim is however eager to be seen as pro-active in protecting the nation from the virus. He recently chaired a public health meeting and has issued hygiene advice nationwide. Pyongyang has received test kits from Russia and from China while various items of protective equipment have been donated by UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders.
The ‘great leader’ would be reluctant in any case to admit to the arrival of the virus since any weakness might invite criticism of his regime. It was fear of reporting the disease to central government that allowed it initially to spread in China but whether North Korea will learn from this lesson seems unlikely. A defector who recalls practising medicine during the SARS outbreak of 2002/03 said that not only was medical equipment seriously lacking then, but deaths were going unrecorded.
Certainly the sheer length of the border between North Korea and China, and its regular use by smugglers and traffickers, would suggest that the virus might enter relatively easily. If it did, that would be a tragedy for the 40% of North Koreans reportedly undernourished. And while new hospitals have been built under Kim’s rule, experts say they mostly benefit the elite in this two-tier nation.
This month the defector Thae Yong-Ho made history by winning a constituency seat in South Korea’s government. Once deputy ambassador to the UK, he says he is determined to work for the freedom of his compatriots who live in virtual ‘slavery’. The high price defectors pay (and there are on average 1000 per year) is the knowledge that their extended families will be detained, or worse, in one of the country’s many detention centres and labour camps.
Human rights, and the health care that these insist on, are sadly in very short supply in North Korea.
Sources: The Guardian, ABC News, TPM Seoul.