Apart from his school days in Switzerland, a trip or two to Beijing to keep his major funders happy and those two awkward ‘will they or won’t they’ dates with the Donald in Singapore and Hanoi, Kim Jong-un was not big on travel. To be honest, neither of the previous leaders of the DPRK were big travellers either. His grandfather Kim Il-sung spent some time in Russia, but that was during the war. His dad Kim Jong-il went to Beijing, and even as far as the bright lights of Shanghai once. It’s not necessarily a family trait – Kim Jong-un’s superfan brother travels all over the place following Eric Clapton, while his half-brother Kim Jong-nam loved Macao and, of course, infamously made an ill-fated last trip to Kuala Lumpur.
No, the question is not where is Kim? But how is Kim? Out there in web-land there’s talk of strokes, heart attacks, liver failure, sclerosis and more. Much mention has been made of his weight, his smoking, his supposed playboy lifestyle . . . It is true the Kims don’t have great records when it comes to health. Kim Il-sung had a massive goitre on his neck that was always airbrushed out of official portraits – but that was wartime iodine deprivation, and understandable. Kim Jong-il lived it up; at one time he was reputedly the world’s largest private buyer of Hennessey Cognac and a devotee of Rothmans cigarettes. (Apparently he quit the imperialist running dog brand of Rothmans for a more patriotic smoke after he commissioned a batch of North Korean scientist to recreate its flavour. Then, so he claimed, he quit altogether.) What can be sure is that Kim Jong-il certainly never looked too healthy.
Kim Jong-un is an unabashed smoker, even puffing away on hospital inspection tours and while checking out children’s bedrooms in new model housing units. It’s not clear if he’s much of a drinker. He was carrying a few extra pounds – which of course draws comment in a country with severe food shortages and decades of malnutrition (a staggering 43% of the population are estimated to be undernourished) – but nothing that would shock anyone in a suburban shopping mall in Missouri or Manchester. While speculation over Kim Jong-il’s health was a constant source of newspaper headlines the world over, that sort of theorizing has been decidedly less rampant, until recently, with Kim Jong-un. He is, after all, only around 35 years of age.
What is for sure is that whether he’s out for the count or just ailing, nothing will be formally revealed to anyone until a successor has been announced. (Pyongyang doesn’t have special buddies so in all likelihood no one – not in Beijing, Washington, Tokyo or Seoul – knows any more than anyone else.) You’ll have noticed a fair bit of speculation around his successor: will it be the sister, despite the fact that she is female in a decidedly patriarchal system; perhaps the brother who was always previously considered too weak; someone else entirely from within the system or even someone unknown by the outside world?
But you know just as much as what nobody knows. But one thing I will guarantee you, is he is definitely in North Korea…