By Harold Rook
Picture global politics as a macroscale version of high school: the world stage is the classroom, wars are fought at 4:30pm under the flagpole after class, and countries are students, with global institutions such as the United Nations being dubiously-helpful teachers and janitors. Each country is voiced by its government, in much the ways you may predict; Britain is a former jock that recently broke up with his girlfriend, the EU, Russia is the bully that constantly steals Ukraine’s lunch money, and Japan is…well, lets call him the “niche” guy. But amongst all of them is the United States: a complete Chad (besides Chad) in every sense of the word, the strongest, richest, smartest kid that has had his fair share of achievements and mistakes. Of course, not everyone likes him. Especially that one kid. You know, THAT kid; the bald guy dressed in all black that is listening to Pumped Up Kicks while playing with a tiny switchblade in the back of the classroom. His twin is best friends with the United States, but he hates him with a passion. Yep, there’s no doubt about it, it’s North Korea. However, due to class getting cancelled because China didn’t tell anyone he was really sick, it’s been quiet. Too quiet. Surely, North Korea would have badmouthed the US by now. He hasn’t even sent an edgy Facebook post. What’s he doing?
North Korea has been having some health issues, specifically with its leader; Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader of the Hermit Kingdom, is speculated to be seriously ill according to US officials. This comes after April 15th, during the Day of the Sun, a North Korean holiday celebrating the country’s founding by Kim Il Sung complete with military parades, where Kim Jong-un was absent. Now, I know what we are all thinking: what genius would have a military parade during the coronavirus? However, this reported absence is not due to the coronavirus because 1) if I have to write about the coronavirus three times in a row I may jump out a window, 2) it is highly unusual for the Supreme Leader to be missing during such a national holiday, and 3) Kim was scheduled to have cardiovascular surgery three days prior. Speculation has been compounded by the poor health exhibited by Kim, who ballooned in weight by 66 pounds by 2015, and is known to be a heavy smoker as well as suffering from diabetes. Combine this with the Kim Dynasty having a history of health issues and media speculation has gone wild, ranging from Kim being “gravely ill” according to CNN to him being in a “vegetative state,” according to Japanese News Source Shukan Gendai, collapsing and needing CPR. It should go without saying that information is scarce due North Korea’s seclusion from the outside world, and these claims are contested by South Korea, China, and even President Trump. Nevertheless, a team of Chinese medical experts has been sent to the Hermit Kingdom to monitor Kim’s health.
With Kim Fatty the Third in such a health predicament, the possibility of a death within the Kim Dynasty has many speculating what will happen to leadership of the country. The first and most obvious choice of succession would be Kim Yo-jong, the sister of the Supreme Leader. Think of her as North Korea’s Iron Lady; as the director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department, Yo-jong has served the Supreme Leader as a member of the politburo, the Supreme People’s Assembly, and is responsible for the continuous indoctrination of North Koreans into believing that her brother is better than God. She’s shrewd, cunning, and likely a hardliner for her brother’s policies. Another possibility would be a more moderate force not directly related to the Kim family, such as senior party officials, filling the void. Of course, there’s always old-fashion (and unlikely) anarchy and government collapse that can result from the political vacuum. In any case, the consequences could be immense, the most concerning being diplomatic talks by the United States regarding North Korea’s nuclear program. Considering the historical diplomatic progress between the two countries, a dead Kim Jong-un could forcibly reset nuclear disarmament talks, especially if a hardliner gets into power. This says nothing if the state itself collapses entirely, likely creating an even greater humanitarian crisis then what already exists in the country.
All of this talk of succession to the dictatorial throne, however, ended within a matter of days, thanks to a series of revelations from both media discoveries and satellite imaging. First, the possibility that the “Dear Leader” was in fact still alive first appeared with his own private train was spotted in Wonsan, a coastal city that hosts Kim Jong-un’s compound. Speculation as to the purpose of this visit sent mixed messages to the media: was Kim Jong-un being hospitalized within the compound? Was he riding out his cardiovascular surgery recovery here? Or was his choice of going to Wonsan because of the coronavirus? Actually, it couldn’t have been because of the coronavirus! After all, the completely trustworthy North Korean media has told us that they, being the superior Korea, have had ZERO cases of coronavirus, a 100% reliable answer to what may be happening. The next potential hint that everyone’s favorite obese rocket ethusiast was in somewhat decent condition came from a somewhat unlikely source: President Trump. In a press conference, when asked if he knew anything regarding Kim Jong-un’s condition, he confirmed that he was aware, but stated that everyone would find out in the coming days. This isn’t completely surprising, given the relationship between President Trump and Kim Jong-un; diplomat channels between the United States and North Korea may in fact be present, giving Trump a bit more insider information as to Kim Jong-un’s condition. However, absolute confirmation of Kim Fatty the Third still being alive came in an unusual form: on May 1st, 2020, Kim Jong-un came out of hiding for the first time, celebrating the opening of…a fertilizer factory. If you’ve been waiting for some epic revelation of Kim’s demise, I guess you can say that this is BULLSHIT…get it? Corny jokes aside, the reasoning for this disappearance may have slightly more to do with coronavirus, supposedly with two of his subordinates contracting a fever. Granted, this news comes from North Korean sources, so it’s best to approach this with a healthy dose of skepticism. Nonetheless, it appears that, for all intensive purposes, Kim Jong-un is alive and well.
So what can we learn here? That North Korea’s lack of transparency is a hindrance to finding out what is actually going on in the Hermit Kingdom? That the spread of misinformation is rampant within news institutions, utilizing unverified sources to get a sensationalized story? That determining the truth of a story requires more time and research, and should not be rushed for the sake of headlines? That Kim Yo-jong is a splitting and memeable image of Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender? All of these things are valid lessons that can be taken from these series of events. However, I would actually point to a greater lesson to be learned here: the role that North Korea places on the world stage. When considering the analogy in the beginning that North Korea is the troubled kid in the classroom most likely to be on the FBI’s watch list, it is easy to dismiss the state as being a backwards, awful mess that murders its own people on a daily basis. And while all of that is 100% true, what should be noted is the position that North Korea serves in global politics; China and Russia actively supports the oppressive regime, in part to maintain influence in the region; the United States and western allies support South Korea and Japan, ensuring that democracy in the Far East can flourish. Anything, ranging from a nuclear launch in North Korea to Kim Jong-un croaking from his obesity, can catalyse a series of events between the major world players that could potentially change the world stage entirely. North Korea may be the most likely kid to be a school shooter, but he’s also the student that everyone is watching very carefully.
Ignoring these metaphors, the situation in North Korea is genuinely nothing to laugh about; even before the current pandemic, citizens from the Hermit Kingdom have been suffering from starvation, oppression, and literal concentration camps that we in the United States are barely able to comprehend. Advocacy highlighting the dire situation in the totalitarian state, such as by Binghamton’s own Liberty in North Korea (my own politics aside, go check them out, they’re working for a good cause), only reveals a population that is practically enslaved. Class may be out for now, but whatever the case is, we must hope that North Korea is just going through a phase, and that he’ll eventually grow out of his trench-coat, knife wielding ways for the betterment of his people. The situation, however, is bleak, and we can only watch from a distance as North Korea operates in its oppressive state.