The New York Times

The New York Times 26 Apr 2020

Where Is Kim Jong-un? How Experts Track North Korea's Leader


Rumors are swirling about Kim Jong-un's location and health. These North Korea experts showed us how they collect information about his secretive regime.

There has been massive amounts of speculation on the whereabouts of the North Korean leader.
Rumours have swirled surrounding the health of North Korea's Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un's health following his noticeable absence from state media, official statements and public events in recent days.
The third-generation hereditary leader who came to power after his father's death in 2011 has no clear successor and it is unclear who would lead the nuclear-armed nation in the event of his incapacitation.
Jim Walsh is a senior research associate in the Security Studies Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He joins us on Skype from Boston.
Kim Jong Un is recovering from cardiovascular procedure, Fox News' Trace Gallagher reports. #FoxNews #Hannity

FOX News operates the FOX News Channel (FNC),
There has been speculation about the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, including rumours he may have died. Intelligence officials from the United States and South Korea say he is alive.


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This was a recent birthday celebration
in North Korea's capital, Pyongyang.
It was held in honor of the country's founder,
Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994.
The festivities may have appeared routine.
But something, someone, was missing.
Kim Jong-un, North Korea's ruler.
Here he is at that same celebration in past years.
Kim's absence has led to questions about his health
and whereabouts.
But details from the secretive regime are hard to come by.
"They have such control over information.
They are so good at restricting access."
So how do North Korea watchers try
to discern what's happening during moments like this?
We spoke to several experts to understand
some of the main techniques that they rely on.
Satellite images are a key tool.
Analysts use them to look for changes or patterns that
can help explain what might be happening in the country
and to track Kim Jong-un's movements.
Take the Central Party Complex, for example,
the regime's headquarters.
"The Central Party Complex is located
right next to where they have the military parades.
In Pyongyang, it is called North Korea's Forbidden City,
because you cannot go there without showing your ID.
You've got to go through four lines of security
before you go in to the actual building.
But it is where all of North Korea's top officials
have residences."
But from above, there are ways around the secrecy.
"You could tell if Kim Jong-un is
in the office based on the guard deployments
around the buildings.
It's like when the president's in the White House.
You can see it.
There's a state security presence
by the Secret Service."
The complex also includes Kim's
reported personal medical clinic.
But in April, we detected a change.
The clinic had just been demolished, making way
for a much larger structure.
It's the kind of visual clue that analysts
tend to keep a close eye on.
If Kim Jong-un does have health issues,
there are other places experts look to for indicators,
like North Korea's most elite hospital where the Kim
family has its own wing.
Analysts might look for certain vehicles outside.
Here's what a motorcade looks like near one of Kim's homes.
If this appears near the hospital,
it may mean he's there.
"We would look at vehicles parked outside of the hospital —
outside of the entrance.
They would, of course, be parked very orderly.
It would be very clean and neat. And anywhere from six to 10 Mercedes Benz
And then after that, we would probably
start to see what are called ACVs, armored combat
vehicles, and any other deployment of Kim Jong-un's
body guard units."
Another area that observers look at
is this train station in Wonsan,
near one of Kim's favorite homes.
Recently, what is likely his personal train
was spotted parked nearby.
If Kim's health was of serious concern,
or if the regime felt its very survival was
in immediate danger, analysts may
look to a compound and surrounding
area in the country's north.
"This is where the Kim's and the North Korean officials
would travel and issue commands and instructions.
It is geographically isolated.
It is a special district where Kim Jong-un has his panic
room and has a command and control facility where
he would be able to command North Korea's armed forces
in the event of an invasion or in the event
of an insurrection against his leadership.
And it also has the value-added benefit of being
so close to the North Korea-
China border that he could drive into China
if they felt that the emergency was that bad."
If Kim were recovering from an ailment,
he might do it at this residential compound.
It's where Kim's father, Kim Jong-il,
made his first public appearance at a soccer game
after having a stroke in 2008.
"It is located about 20 to 30 minutes
from central Pyongyang.
So that would allow him to recover in privacy,
and quietly.
But if he needed to go to Pyongyang
to exercise his authority or show
his face at a political meeting, it's a short drive."
But satellite imagery doesn't always
provide a clear answer.
"We also need to be mindful of the fact
that North Korea is very aware that we are watching them
from above.
And so I have seen in the past that North Korea uses
that satellite imagery to conceal what they're doing
and to deflect what they're doing."
"Sometimes when he's gone abroad,
they will put the guard deployments
up there to make it look like he's in there.
He's not in there."
Another area North Korea watchers look to
for clues about the regime is state-run news outlets.
Although the media treats North Korean leaders
as godlike figures, experts say
there are ways to tell if Kim is in trouble.
"If there's a major crisis today, tomorrow,
within a few days, what we will see
are very long editorials or very long
essays published in North Korea's newspapers, which
will talk about the virtues of Kim family leadership.
They won't refer directly to Kim Jong-un necessarily.
But they will talk about virtues
and trace those virtues back to all three of the Kims."
The presence or absence of the ruler during major media
spectacles may also be a worrying sign,
like in 2008 when Kim Jong-un's father and then
leader was due at a major military parade
to celebrate the country's founding.
"We're expecting then leader Kim Jong-il
to come out and wave, salute the troops.
So it was my first day of work.
I was watching this.
And lo and behold, as the camera scanned to the viewing
platform, he wasn't there.
And I cannot tell you, that just sent shivers down
my spine.
We finally got intel sources in Washington, D.C.,
to confirm that they believed that Kim Jong-il had suffered
a stroke several weeks earlier in August and was in a coma."
State television didn't cover Kim Jong-il's ailments.
"All they showed on state TV was old documentary footage
but no new images that have been moving for months.
North Korea never acknowledged his illness —
Finally, there is the tracking of commercial and private
This website shows flights over
a typical 48-hour period.
Notice how empty it is over North Korea.
Only about half a dozen commercial airliners
land in Pyongyang's airport each day.
So any unscheduled flight should stand out.
If Kim Jong-un was severely ill,
analysts may watch for a specific type of flight
arriving in Pyongyang.
"I would look for charter flights
because if it was a major medical procedure,
there's a very high chance that they
would have retained foreign physicians
to do the procedure."
North Korea watchers have used flight tracking
in the past for clues about the ruler's intentions.
In 2018, unscheduled cargo plane flights
were quickly spotted leaving Pyongyang bound
for Vladivostok, Russia.
Both were believed to have been involved in sanctions
violations by the regime.
None of these techniques alone can provide
a full picture of Kim's life.
Analysts also heavily rely on human and intelligence
And despite modern technology and expertise,
the regime still manages to keep
most of its internal affairs away from prying eyes.

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