It seems like every year or two, there is a storm of rumors about upheaval in or related to North Korea. Most of them are along the same lines; utter collapse of the only visibly Stalinist regime in the world (visibly—most similar states in other parts of the world don’t get the attention that the DPRK does), North Korean nuclear strikes, or similar chaos. Few if any of them have borne out.
The latest began surfacing in September, as VICE reports, when a group of North Korean exiles met at a summit in the Netherlands. A former regime official, Jang Jin-Sung, announced that there is a quiet civil war underway between conservatives and reformers in North Korea, and that the Organization and Guidance Department, a sort of powerful cabinet formed by Kim Jong-il, had stopped taking Kim Jong-un’s orders. Where he is getting this information is unclear. The rumors were further fueled by the fact that in his last public appearance, Kim Jong-un appeared to be walking with a limp, and he has not been seen since early September. His absence at the recent session of North Korea’s “parliament” has also raised eyebrows.
A travel ban in and out of Pyongyang instituted on September 27 has also fueled rumors of a coup. If not a coup, some have postulated, at least an attempted coup, or possibly another purge. Some have taken Hwang Pyong So’s trip to South Korea as a sign that the “second most powerful man” in the DPRK feels “free to visit the south.” On the other hand, some have pointed out that if something as major as a coup had gone down, a major member of the regime would probably not be straying far from Pyongyang.
North Korean officials have since announced that “Kim Jong-un is in complete control.” Of course, total truth from Pyongyang has been a joke for decades, and dictatorships rarely announce the fall of the dictator, or at least strive to put it off for as long as possible, but in this case, the North Korean announcement is just as plausible as the rumors.
In all likelihood, Kim Jong-un is simply ill. There are a lot of crystal-ball gazers in South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. who make their living by studying North Korea and stirring up interest/fear in the Hermit Kingdom. Their predictions have yet to come true. The Kim dynasty has continued on, and while North Korea has threatened, saber rattled, sent advisors and asymmetric warfare groups inimical to the U.S. and its allies to several states (the Light Infantry Training Guidance Bureau is surprisingly well-traveled), they do not have the documented capability to follow through on most of their threats of mass destruction and total annihilation. The 2009 threat to nuke Hawaii on the 4th of July was laughable.
Furthermore, the DPRK has been on the verge of complete collapse for several decades now, according to the crystal-ball watchers. The problem with this idea is that North Korea serves several useful purposes to the People’s Republic of China, not the least of which is a buffer zone between the PRC and the Western-allied Republic of Korea. North Korea is increasingly propped up by aid, and a great deal of that comes from China. The Chinese are unlikely to allow North Korea to collapse anytime soon.
While the regular yearly rumor-mongering about the Hermit Kingdom is entertaining geopolitical theater, it is not likely to change dramatically in the near future.