National Security

Speculation About Kim’s Death Could Be a Sign of Waning Relations Between North Korea, China

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un / Getty Images

As speculation about the medical condition of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has died down since North Korean state media reported his emergence after a three-week absence, many are questioning the origins of those rumors.

Analysts told the Washington Free Beacon that rumors about Kim's demise were shopped around by sources in China, a sign that the relationship between the two countries has taken a hit.

While China continues to be a reliable trade partner to North Korea, the relationship between the two countries is tense and has a long, complex history of mutual suspicion. As relations grew colder, China was wary its own interests weren't being considered as North Korea entered dialogues with South Korea and the United States in 2018.

Kim disappeared from all state media reports after April 11. He did not attend a public ceremony commemorating the April 15 birthday of his grandfather, founder of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Kim Il Sung. There was some speculation that something had gone wrong during an April 14 launch of new cruise missiles.

Some observers speculated that Kim had been injured during the launch, while others reported that he had had a cardiac episode sometime in the middle of April. By the end of April, signs emerged that Kim was alive.

North Korea watchers told the Free Beacon that rumors of Kim's death came from China.

Chinese sources gave accounts in the April 24 issue of a Japanese weekly magazine that Kim had suffered a cardiac event in the countryside. Those sources said he was taken to the hospital for an emergency procedure which was unsuccessful.

And Reuters reported on April 24 that three sources verified that a team of Chinese doctors and medical personnel were dispatched to the DPRK in an effort to aid in Kim's recovery.

A North Korea analyst told the Free Beacon that the near-total control of North Korea over external telephone and internet communications meant it was hard to believe Chinese medical personnel would be able to transmit news quickly out of the country.

"But whether or not the story is true is not the issue," continued the analyst. "From Pyongyang's standpoint this was a betrayal of confidence if it has been true and if it is all fake then Beijing was deliberately trying to undermine Kim and create an image of weakness in front of the Americans."

That mistrust took a turn for the worse on April 27 with the release of a video on the Telegram mobile messaging app showing the Chinese military relocating vehicles and equipment to Dandong, the largest Chinese city on the border with North Korea and the site of a steady flow of illegal cross-border commercial activity, as well as weapons sales.

Intelligence sources confirmed reports that these movements were not part of a normal rotation or deployment for China's PLA or even a training exercise.

"This is Beijing pre-positioning units in case of a collapse in the DPRK regime’s control and they are preparing for any eventuality," said an intelligence officer with experience in tracking Chinese military movements.

This all raises the issue of who and what could have benefited from these false rumors about Kim's health. The intelligence officer suggested the rumors were a diversion to get the world's mind off blaming China for the coronavirus pandemic.

"The entire world is furious with [China] over the COVID-19 epidemic—the perception that Beijing could have contained the outbreak but purposely elected not to—with the result that damage to the world’s economy is now off the scale," the officer said. "It is entirely possible that this was the Chinese Communist Party fecklessly looking for a diversion—any diversion—so that the world’s attention might shift to another crisis and forget about plans for ‘how to get even with China.'"