By FOSTER KLUG
TOKYO (AP) — New rumors about Kim Jong Un pour in daily. The North Korean leader is dead. Or he’s very ill. Or maybe he’s just recuperating in his luxury compound, or isolating himself from the coronavirus.
As speculation about his health builds, an underlying question looms for professional spies, policymakers, academics and curious news consumers alike.
What do we really know about the man who leads North Korea?
There’s not much to go on here despite the building media coverage.
Some unconfirmed news reports say Kim is in fragile condition or even a vegetative state following heart surgery.
The South Korean government, however, maintains that Kim still appears to be in power and that there have been no signs that something big has happened in North Korea.
What’s uncontested is that Kim hasn’t appeared in public since an April 11 meeting focused on the coronavirus. This sort of vanishing act has happened before, but what has set rumors ablaze now is that for the first time as leader he missed the most important holiday of the North Korean year, the April 15 celebration of his grandfather’s birth.
There have been no photographs and no videos of the leader in nearly three weeks, only state media reports of him sending written greetings to world leaders or citizens of merit.
Those looking to understand Kim face a problem. Much of what the outside world sees is filtered through relentless North Korean propaganda meant to build him into an infallible paragon of leadership.
In the West, portrayals of Kim often run to caricature. His broken friendship with Dennis Rodman, the former basketball star he reportedly idolized as a schoolboy; the rumors about his extreme love of cheese and his allegedly creative ways of disposing of officials who displease him.
Kim has shown a growing confidence on the world stage, most clearly with the high-stakes diplomacy that followed a run of nuclear and missile tests in 2017 that had many fearing war.
The sight of a North Korean leader meeting with his South Korean and U.S. rivals was extraordinary, though it’s not yet clear whether the diplomacy will settle an uneasy region.
Kim entered 2020 vowing to bolster his nuclear deterrent in the face of “gangster-like” U.S. economic sanctions, and he supervised a series of weapons launches and military drills in March.
Much of what happens now will depend on Kim’s health.
North Korea, despite its poverty, has long commanded world attention because of its sustained, belligerent pursuit of what it calls self-defensive measures in response to U.S. hostility—and what critics call an illegal accumulation of nuclear bombs.