This article was written by Alex Hollings and originally published on

A few days ago, headlines around the world suggested that North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, was in critical condition following surgery. Almost immediately, questions arose about succession. After years of fiery bluster and threats of nuclear war out of the North Korean government, many wondered if relations between our two states might warm with someone new at the helm.

But then, just as quickly as the story broke, it slunk back into the shadows of unconfirmed reports. Now questions remain about what really happened to Kim, what the status of his health really is, and whether or not there’s a clear line of succession in the event North Korea’s despot does pass away.

Why is it so hard to know what’s going on with Kim Jong Un?

For many Americans, it can be difficult to really appreciate what life is like inside North Korea’s borders. In fact, the North Korean government takes great pains to ensure that visitors and the media see and depict only positive views of the nation and its government. In the modern world, North Korea represents a vestige of a simpler time, with limited connection to the world at large and an intensely regulated culture that places Kim, his father, and grandfather in a near-deity role.

According to some reports from foreigners given limited access to North Korea, each home has a small radio that can not be turned off (but that does have a volume knob). These radios receive a steady stream of national propaganda, touting the successes of their great leader and framing many of the nation’s challenges as the direct result of American imperialism. There remains some debate about if these radio’s are actually in every home, but the truth is, it wouldn’t much matter even if it weren’t true. The North Korean government strictly censors all media content within the state, regardless of its method of distribution.

And therein lies a big part of why the outside world is so “in the dark” about things that go on within North Korea’s borders: with nearly no access to the internet outside of government officials, no free press, and strict policies regulating the activity of foreign visitors (particularly those from the West), there’s simply no open-source method of intelligence gathering.

Instead, America’s defense and intelligence apparatus has to rely on whatever signal communications it can intercept and what is commonly referred to as HUMINT (or covert intelligence gathered from actual people within the closed-off nation).

In America, the free press would report on a president suddenly turning ill, but in North Korea, where the government goes to great lengths to suggest that Kim Jong Un is a larger-than-life success at everything he does, reporting on a medical emergency would run counter to decades worth of intentional messaging.