New satellite imagery from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s coastal resort suggest he is bunkering down there, not in fact dead, say experts who monitor the reclusive regime.
Speculation has mounted over Mr Kim’s health and location as he has not been seen in public since April 11.
Although many North Korean watchers say it is unlikely he is dead, it has revealed a glaring hole in the authoritarian system.
That of his successor.
On Tuesday, North Korea-monitoring website NK PRO reported commercial satellite imagery showed luxury boats often used by Mr Kim had made movements in patterns that suggested he or his entourage may be in the Wonsan area.
Officials in South Korea and the United States say it is plausible Mr Kim may be staying there, possibly to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, and have expressed scepticism of media reports he had some kind of serious illness.
They caution, however, that Mr Kim’s health and location are closely guarded secrets and reliable information is difficult to obtain in North Korea.
Kim Jong-un could be dead. He could be in a vegetable-like-state. He could have had heart surgery. He could be sitting by the pool, margarita in hand, wondering which relative to cull next.
He could be anywhere doing anything, but the basic fact is we just don’t know, said Australia’s leading North Korea expert, La Trobe University’s Benjamin Habib.
“The genesis of this was one report in the Daily NK website a couple of weeks ago that said he was ill, potentially in a bad state, and of course that went viral,” Dr Habib said.
“Then there was a second set of reports coming out of Chinese social media reportedly from doctors who said a Chinese medical team had gone into NK to do something with Kim.
“Then the death rumours came from the idea this surgery hadn’t gone well and he was in a vegetative state, but again, the story is not corroborated and has taken on a life of its own.”
Although it is not unprecedented that he would disappear, as he ‘was out of commission for 41 days in 2014’, it is notable as he missed one of the biggest days on the North Korea calendar – the Day of the Sun, or the birthday of his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, Dr Habib said.
“It is noteworthy worthy because his grandfather’s birthday in April. That’s one of the biggest days of the year. It was noteworthy he wasn’t there. As to why, though, there is no concrete evidence.”
South Korea, which is best positioned to know the status of Mr Kim’s health, has said it amassed “enough intelligence to confidently say that there are no unusual developments”.
On Thursday unification minister Kim Yeon-chul added to this, saying the South Korean government knows where the dictator is.
We can only wait to see what happens next, but the speculation of an untimely death of the world’s most infamous leader has revealed a gaping hole in the regime built on lineage.
If Mr Kim is dead, who takes the throne?
“The real story is if he did die, there’s no anointed successor. So how that would be managed is unknown,” Dr Habib said.
“This is the real brittle point for the regime – how succession works if there is an abrupt death of a leader.”
Kim Jong-un is rumoured to have three children, but they’re all instantly disqualified from taking the top job, Dr Habib said.
“They’re younger than 10, so they’re not even close to being ready,” he said.
“So I think we can rule them out. It’s unlikely to be his wife because she is not a political figure.”
Mr Kim’s sudden death would likely lead to a North Korean Game of Thrones, where a power vacuum is created and those with the most support purge their way to the top.
So who are the players?
The top contenders are his sister, Kim Yo-jong, who plays a role in running the country, his cousin and his uncle.
“His sister seems to be the leading candidate. The basis of her claim is that she is part of his lineage,” Dr Habib said.
“She has held official roles. She’s not integrated into the hard-core institutional roles of the party and military, but she has had diplomatic roles.”
If it was to transpire, and Ms Kim became leader, she would be the first female dictator in modern history.
But like all countries, North Korea is not immune to the glass ceiling.
Both sides of the demilitarised zone embrace strong Confucius traditions in regards to gender politics.
But it is important to point out that didn’t stop South Korea from having a female president, Mr Habib said.
“South Korea has had a female president, who was the daughter of a dictator,” he said.
“It’s not like it can’t happen, but it would be a new step in North Korean politics.”
Another disruption to her claim would be her age.
“She’s young. She’s only 32. Granted, she is older than Kim Jong-un when he took power but being relatively young and female in a patriarchal system, they’re two crosses against the claim.”
The dictator’s uncle Kim Pyong-il has also emerged as a possible candidate.
The 65-year-old almost had the top job, but was passed over for his brother, Mr Kim’s dad, who ruled the regime from 1994 until 2011.
As a consolidation prize, Pyong-il spent 40 years abroad as a diplomat in Hungary, Bulgaria, Finland, Poland and the Czech Republic before he returned to his country last year.
He now lives under house arrest.
North Korean watchers say he could get the top job became he is a man, but many are sceptical he has no real power in the regime.
After Mr Kim took power in 2011 he went on a purge, executing his uncle and, it’s believed, ordering the assassination of his half-brother.
The fact that Kim Pyong-il survived, some believe shows he was never a serious challenger.
One member of the South Korean parliament’s intelligence committee, Kim Byung-ki, said on Sunday there was no likelihood of Pyong-il becoming a successor.
“I laugh off these theories,” he said on social media.
Another contender could be Kim’s cousin, Kim Han-sol.
He’s young, progressive, and his uncle had his father killed in one of the biggest scandals of 2017.
Politics can be a costly family affair.
Han-sol may be the right gender and have the right blood, but he’s been out of the game for a long time, having fled the country at a young age when his family fell out of favour with the regime.
He has been a outspoken advocate for reunification with South Korea, and after the murder of his father at a Malaysian airport in 2017, he posted a video from an unknown location, revealing he had gone into hiding with his mother and sister.
“He’s got the family link, but he is also the son of someone who was executed, so that’s a real long shot,” Dr Habib said.
The wild card
Another option could be a complete wild card.
“If it’s going to be a wild card, it will be someone from the military. If you look at South Korea, [it has a] history of coups and dictatorships that bears that out.”
North Korea’s elite all have a vested interest in keeping the regime going, but an opening for the most prestigious position, with no clear successor, could mean big trouble.
And that’s not just with those playing for power, but for the 25 million people who live in the country.
“You’ve got to be careful what you wish for, Dr Habib said.
“You’ve got a ruthless authoritarian leader who has presided over a criminal government but at the same time, if he dies, it unleashes possibilities for instability for the North Korean people.”