When the North Korean state media stops reporting on the activities of its head of state, or says he’s experiencing ‘discomfort‘ during a long absence, tongues will wag and Anglophone keyboards will rattle. Is Kim Jong-un ill, experiencing immobility at such an early age? Rather than recapitulate a few hundred semi-respectful comments on Twitter (through which I’ve tried to contribute to our collective fund of specific documentation of the health and physical capabilities of the Respected Marshal), I’d like to present a slightly different idea, one which is equally speculative, and backed by an equal amount of evidence for assertions that he’s suffering from gout: Kim Jong-un is simply preparing for his first foreign trip.
What would lead one to believe that a Kim Jong-un visit to Mongolia was in the offing? While Asahi Shimbun missed a recent high-level DPRK delegation’s stop in Ulanbaator in its round-up of North Korea’s ‘diplomatic offensive,’ your intrepid author did not. The Rodong Sinmun reported on the meeting here, but it was the Mongolian President’s Office dispatch which contained the richest information:
Today, President of Mongolia Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj received Kang Sok Ju, Secretary and Director for International Affairs of the Worker’s Party and other officials from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Mr. Kang Sok Ju conveyed the supreme leader of the DPRK Kim Jong-un’s heartfelt greetings to President of Mongolia.
President Elbegdorj noted: “First, Mongolia and the DPRK enjoy certain principles of bilateral relations and we are committed to enhance mutual ties which established by our older generations. Second, relations between our two countries should ensure the mutual interest. Third, we should work to implement the documents and agreements which signed during the visit of the President of Mongolia to the DPRK in 2013”.
President Elbegdorj expressed his gratitude that the DPRK is supporting Mongolia’s initiative on the Dialogue on North East Asia Security and confirmed his invitation to the supreme leader of the DPRK Kim Jong-un and the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Yong-nam to visit Mongolia [emphasis added].
Further DPRK-Mongolia ties continued after this trip, following on what is proving to be a rather durable relationship. The Mongolian President is presently in New York (saying things like ‘Strengthening peace and stability in Northeast Asia is one of our national security priorities’), so won’t be around for a few more days to receive a visitor, but in the end, one good guess deserves another.
Kim Jong-un may be flat on his back, or on a vacation in Thailand, or he might be getting ready to cap off North Korea’s biggest ‘diplomatic offensive‘ in years by finally showing he’s capable of strutting down a red carpet on a runway not on his country’s sovereign territory. As with the worry-inducing long sabbatical of the Moranbong Band, it may be a bit too soon to start speculating that Kim Jong-un isn’t coming back at all, or that the Korean Workers’ Party is anything but in control of the media narrative. As one particularly intelligent observer of the Pyongyang scene put it, ‘Beware the North Korean rumor mill.’