SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea is still sending letters and gifts to foreign leaders and domestic workers in the name of its leader, Kim Jong-un. Its news media brims, as usual, with panegyric propaganda extolling Mr. Kim’s leadership. South Korea reiterates that it has detected “nothing unusual” in the North. President Trump has called “incorrect” and “fake” a report that Mr. Kim was “in grave danger” after surgery.
All this has done little to stop the rumor mill churning about Mr. Kim’s health and the fate of the nuclear state — for the simple reason that North Korea has not reported a public appearance by its leader for two weeks. Nor has it responded to lurid claims about his health.
The lack of real information from the hermetic country is giving rise to rampant rumor mongering, leaving North Korean experts, foreign officials and intelligence agencies to parse through it all for signs of the truth.
Depending on the news outlet or social media post, Mr. Kim, believed to be 36, is recuperating after a minor health issue like a sprained ankle, or he is “in grave danger” after a heart surgery. Or he has become “brain dead” or is in a “vegetative state” after a heart-valve surgery gone wrong at the hands of a nervous North Korean surgeon or one of the doctors China dispatched to treat him. Or Mr. Kim is grounded with Covid-19. Where did he get it? From one of those Chinese doctors.
One rumor circulating in South Korean messaging apps claims that after French doctors could not wake Mr. Kim from his “coma,” Kim Pyong-il, a half brother of Mr. Kim’s late father, seized power with the help of pro-Chinese elites in Pyongyang, the North’s capital. It goes on to say that Mr. Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo-jong, has been detained while Beijing is secretly bargaining with Washington over the future of North Korea and its nuclear weapons.
Seoul has questioned the accuracy of the unconfirmed reports, while the South Korean news media appears to dismiss most of them as online rumors spreading through Chinese social media and beyond. But they cannot be completely ignored, since North Korea is so secretive that the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies have been unable to penetrate Mr. Kim’s inner circles.
Mr. Kim last appeared publicly on April 11, when he presided over a Politburo meeting. Speculations about his health began swirling after Mr. Kim missed state celebrations for his country’s biggest holiday, the April 15 birthday of his grandfather and founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung.
Rumors went into overdrive after Daily NK, a Seoul-based website relying on anonymous sources inside the North, reported on Monday that Mr. Kim was recovering from heart surgery performed on April 12. The next day, CNN added to the frenzy, reporting that Washington was monitoring intelligence that Mr. Kim was “in grave danger.” On Saturday, TMZ, a celebrity-news tabloid website in the United States, blared: “N. Korea dictator Kim Jong-un reportedly dead after botched heart surgery.”
More than once, Mr. Trump has wished Mr. Kim well if he indeed were ill.
“North Korea’s secrecy and our lack of reliable information create a breeding ground for rumors,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “But his continued absence would be destabilizing as more people in and outside the country wonder if he is incapacitated or dead.”
In recent days, the South Koreans and their allies in Washington have scoured North Korea with the help of spy satellites and other resources for signs of Mr. Kim and preparations for missile launches.
Their efforts led them to Wonsan, an east coast town where Mr. Kim’s family has a seaside compound complete with yachts, Jet Skis, a horse track and a private train station.
A train “probably belonging to” Mr. Kim has been parked there since at least Tuesday, 38 North, a Washington-based website specializing in North Korea, reported on Saturday, citing commercial satellite imagery.
Wonsan is one of Mr. Kim’s favorite sites for missile tests. A South Korean news report said on Saturday that the United States had detected preparations for a missile test in Sondeok, farther up the east coast, where North Korea launched missiles in August last year and again in March in Mr. Kim’s presence.
South Korean officials privately say that Mr. Kim’s presence at a missile test could be a strategic way to quiet the speculation. But North Korea has also used such preparations to keep its external foes guessing.
Mr. Kim’s sudden demise could create a power vacuum with far-reaching implications.
Over the decades, American and South Korean officials have discussed top-secret contingency plan, including how to prevent the North’s nuclear weapons from falling into wrong hands, and what to do if Beijing sends troops into the North to stabilize its neighbor, which has long served as a buffer between China and American forces based in South Korea.
In this secretive society, any likely successor to Mr. Kim amounts to a guessing game, even for outside analysts who have spent their academic careers parsing the North.
Will it be his only sister, Kim Yo-jong, who has recently expanded her role in his government? What about Kim Pyong-il, who returned home last year after serving for decades as North Korea’s low-key ambassador to Eastern European countries?
Some predict a collective leadership to be led by Choe Ryong-hae, the No. 2 in government hierarchy. What if a yet-unknown but ambitious general engineered a putsch? How would North Koreans who have been trained to worship the Kim family respond?
“While North Korea’s neighbors are mired in domestic politics during a global pandemic, U.S.-China relations are tense, and international organizations are strained, the world isn’t well prepared for the death of Kim Jong-un,” Mr. Easley said.
This is not the first time Mr. Kim has disappeared from public view for weeks at a stretch or faced speculation about his health. But the strange personality cult surrounding Mr. Kim — his bombast, obesity and even hairdo — ensure rumors can take hold.
Officials are careful not to quash the rumors outright, in part because their past predictions on the North have sometimes proved wrong. Reporting on North Korea, too, has been strewn with blunders.
In 1986, a South Korean newspaper reported a “world scoop” claiming that Mr. Kim’s grandfather, then-President Kim Il-sung, died in an armed attack. A smiling Kim Il-sung resurfaced two days later.
The rumors can also turn out to be true.
In 2008, Mr. Kim’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il, was absent from view for months. South Korean analysts and the news media speculated, correctly, that he had a stroke. He died three years later.
Some of the biggest skeptics of the latest rumors are North Korean defectors themselves.
Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea, said it was hard to believe that any reliable information about Mr. Kim’s health was leaked from his most trusted aides. Mr. Thae said that no one in his office in the North Korean Foreign Ministry knew of Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011 until they were gathered at an auditorium for an “important announcement” and saw a female announcer appearing on the TV screen, clad in funeral black.
Joo Sung-ha, a North Korean defector-turned journalist for the South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo, said in a Facebook post that it was reasonable to believe that Mr. Kim had health problems. But he had zero trust in news reports detailing whether and why the North Korean leader faced a grave medical emergency.
Such details about “the health of the Kim family is the secret among secrets,” he said, calling the people who claim to know “novelists.”