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N Korea at crossroads

All eyes on Kim family as North Korean leader's health questioned

Sister Kim Yo Jong seen as de facto number 2

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is assisted by his sister Kim Yo Jong as he signs documents inside the Demilitarized Zone in April 2018.   © Reuters

SEOUL/WASHINGTON -- News of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's possible ill health rippled throughout the world Tuesday, sending governments scrambling for information.

It also triggered speculation about potential succession scenarios, especially as the 36-year-old Kim's three children are still young and presumably not ready to lead the country.

"The basic assumption would be maybe it would be someone in the family," U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien said, when asked what the succession would look like, according to footage aired by CNN. "But, again, it's too early to talk about that because we just don't know what condition Chairman Kim is in and we'll have to see how it plays out."

U.S. President Donald Trump said he would not "place much credence" in the report.

"We don't know," Trump said at his Tuesday White House briefing on the coronavirus, when prompted by a reporter. "I've had a very good relationship with him. ... I can only say this: I wish him well."

The Kim family asserts the legitimacy of its rule by citing family lineage -- the Mount Paektu bloodline -- that goes back to Kim Il Sung, the country's founding father. Since then, the country's leadership has been passed down to his son Kim Jong Il and later his grandson Kim Jong Un.

Given the importance of this family lineage, Kim Jong Un's sister, Kim Yo Jong, could be handed over power in the event of an emergency. Kim Yo Jong, 31, vice director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers' Party of Korea, was reinstated as an alternate Politburo member of the party on April 11, solidifying her position as the de facto No. 2.

Kim also has an older brother, Kim Jong Chul, who was passed over for the leadership. The father, Kim Jong Il, considered Kim Jong Chul "girlish" and not fit to lead the country, the family's former Japanese sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto wrote in an autobiography.  

CNN reported Monday that Kim Jong Un was in grave danger after undergoing surgery, citing U.S. intelligence, but the South Korean government is skeptical of the report. The leader has not been seen at public events of late, including the birthday celebration of his grandfather, and experts have been pointing to the possibility of a serious illness.

Since Kim Jong Un became supreme leader in 2012, he has gained weight, and there has been frequent speculation about his poor health. In September 2014, reports of his activities were suspended and rumors that he was brain dead emerged. South Korea's National Intelligence Service eventually said a cyst was surgically removed from his left ankle.

Kim's last activity to be reported by North Korean media was his attendance of meeting of the Politburo of the Worker's Party on April 11. On April 15, Kim Il Sung's birthday, rumors about Kim Jong Un's ill health became rampant after there was no report of him attending a ceremony at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang, where his grandfather's body lies in state. Kim Jong Un had not missed the ceremony there before.

Daily NK, a South Korean online news outlet focused on the North, reported Monday that Kim received a cardiovascular procedure on April 12 at a special hospital exclusively used by the Kim family located north of Pyongyang. Kim is recovering, with his medical team returning to the capital, Daily NK reported.

"No unusual signs have been identified inside North Korea," South Korean presidential spokesman Kang Min-seok said Tuesday. "There is nothing we can confirm with regard to Chairman Kim's alleged health problem."

Kim is thought to be staying in a provincial region together with close aides, Yonhap News reported, citing a senior South Korean official.

Meanwhile, Yoon Sang-hyun, chairman of the South Korean National Assembly's foreign affairs committee, told reporters that North Korea's secret police completely locked down Pyongyang several days ago. He said there are signs of an abnormal situation involving Kim Jong Un.

"I know about the reports," said Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga of the news about Kim's health. "We will gather and analyze information while working closely with the U.S. and others."

Pyongyang's official mouthpiece, Korean Central News Agency, has remained silent on the leader's health, but it reported Monday that Kim sent a birthday message to Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel.

Kim "expressed pleasure" over how the "Cuban people have achieved great successes in their struggle to firmly protect the gains of socialism and make socio-economic development, smashing the frantic sanctions and blockade of the hostile forces."

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