Paul French
Paul French

The disappearance of North Korea´s leader Kim Jong-un from public view, might not be as dramatic as some commentators have suggested, writes author Paul French of North Korea: State of Paranoia: A Modern History in a Reuters´blog. It might as well be a gentle power shift from one-man rule to the country´s elite, based on consensus.

Paul French:

Kim Jong-un has apparently gone AWOL. His movements unknown, the reason for his sudden invisibility mysterious. Nobody in Pyongyang is saying anything. But then nobody in Pyongyang ever says very much.

Still, Kim has been hard to find since early September and the North Korean media have not posted any pictures of him inspecting a jam factory or shouting into a field telephone at some remote artillery post. “Kim watching” is bread and butter to the smallish coterie of Pyongyang Watchers and radio silence inevitably gets ratcheted up to suspicions of ill health, death, murder or coup.

In the world of North Korea analysis there’s no light comedy or gentle drama – it’s always straight toMacbeth! But hold on a minute before we put the U.S. Seventh Fleet on red alert or open up the bomb shelters in Seoul. We’ve been here before…

Rumors of attempted military coups among the shadowy Pyongyang elite have emerged regularly over the years. The 1950s and 1960s saw show trials of senior military personnel, when Kim Il-sung purged political rivals after sequestering himself and leaving analysts wondering where he’d got to. In the late 1960s Chinese Red Guards claimed that Kim Il-sung had been arrested by army generals after he wasn’t seen for a bit. A further purge of the military hierarchy reportedly followed, so maybe the Red Guards knew more than most…

What we may be witnessing here is something far less dramatic than a coup, but no less important in many respects –- a shift from the traditional policy of the all-powerful, all-guiding  “Suryong Dominant Party-State System,” whereby the supreme leader directly rules over the party, the government, and the military, to something more consensual among the elite. Kim Jong-un may now be accepting advice and delegating roles to a greater extent. His domestic position will remain dominant, a figurehead to the North Korean people, but internationally, and particularly in relations with South Korea he may be purposely taking a back seat to allow a breakthrough.

More in the Reuters´blog.

Paul French is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers´request form.

Paul French is a prolific author and speaker on China and North Korea. For a regularly updated list of his activities, click here. 

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