Where Is Kim Jong-un? How Experts Track North Korea’s Leader


This was a recent birthday celebration in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. It was held in honor of the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994. The festivities may have appeared routine. But something, someone, was missing. Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s ruler. Here he is at that same celebration in past years. Kim’s absence has led to questions about his health and whereabouts. But details from the secretive regime are hard to come by. “They have such control over information. They are so good at restricting access.” So how do North Korea watchers try to discern what’s happening during moments like this? We spoke to several experts to understand some of the main techniques that they rely on. Satellite images are a key tool. Analysts use them to look for changes or patterns that can help explain what might be happening in the country and to track Kim Jong-un’s movements. Take the Central Party Complex, for example, the regime’s headquarters. “The Central Party Complex is located right next to where they have the military parades. In Pyongyang, it is called North Korea’s Forbidden City, because you cannot go there without showing your ID. You’ve got to go through four lines of security before you go in to the actual building. But it is where all of North Korea’s top officials have residences.” But from above, there are ways around the secrecy. “You could tell if Kim Jong-un is in the office based on the guard deployments around the buildings. It’s like when the president’s in the White House. You can see it. There’s a state security presence by the Secret Service.” The complex also includes Kim’s reported personal medical clinic. But in April, we detected a change. The clinic had just been demolished, making way for a much larger structure. It’s the kind of visual clue that analysts tend to keep a close eye on. If Kim Jong-un does have health issues, there are other places experts look to for indicators, like North Korea’s most elite hospital where the Kim family has its own wing. Analysts might look for certain vehicles outside. Here’s what a motorcade looks like near one of Kim’s homes. If this appears near the hospital, it may mean he’s there. “We would look at vehicles parked outside of the hospital — outside of the entrance. They would, of course, be parked very orderly. It would be very clean and neat. And anywhere from six to 10 Mercedes Benz sedans. And then after that, we would probably start to see what are called ACVs, armored combat vehicles, and any other deployment of Kim Jong-un’s body guard units.” Another area that observers look at is this train station in Wonsan, near one of Kim’s favorite homes. Recently, what is likely his personal train was spotted parked nearby. [MUSIC PLAYING] If Kim’s health was of serious concern, or if the regime felt its very survival was in immediate danger, analysts may look to a compound and surrounding area in the country’s north. “This is where the Kim’s and the North Korean officials would travel and issue commands and instructions. It is geographically isolated. It is a special district where Kim Jong-un has his panic room and has a command and control facility where he would be able to command North Korea’s armed forces in the event of an invasion or in the event of an insurrection against his leadership. And it also has the value-added benefit of being so close to the North Korea- China border that he could drive into China if they felt that the emergency was that bad.” If Kim were recovering from an ailment, he might do it at this residential compound. It’s where Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, made his first public appearance at a soccer game after having a stroke in 2008. “It is located about 20 to 30 minutes from central Pyongyang. So that would allow him to recover in privacy, and quietly. But if he needed to go to Pyongyang to exercise his authority or show his face at a political meeting, it’s a short drive.” But satellite imagery doesn’t always provide a clear answer. “We also need to be mindful of the fact that North Korea is very aware that we are watching them from above. And so I have seen in the past that North Korea uses that satellite imagery to conceal what they’re doing and to deflect what they’re doing.” “Sometimes when he’s gone abroad, they will put the guard deployments up there to make it look like he’s in there. He’s not in there.” Another area North Korea watchers look to for clues about the regime is state-run news outlets. Although the media treats North Korean leaders as godlike figures, experts say there are ways to tell if Kim is in trouble. “If there’s a major crisis today, tomorrow, within a few days, what we will see are very long editorials or very long essays published in North Korea’s newspapers, which will talk about the virtues of Kim family leadership. They won’t refer directly to Kim Jong-un necessarily. But they will talk about virtues and trace those virtues back to all three of the Kims.” [CHOIR SINGING IN KOREAN] The presence or absence of the ruler during major media spectacles may also be a worrying sign, like in 2008 when Kim Jong-un’s father and then leader was due at a major military parade to celebrate the country’s founding. “We’re expecting then leader Kim Jong-il to come out and wave, salute the troops. So it was my first day of work. I was watching this. And lo and behold, as the camera scanned to the viewing platform, he wasn’t there. And I cannot tell you, that just sent shivers down my spine. We finally got intel sources in Washington, D.C., to confirm that they believed that Kim Jong-il had suffered a stroke several weeks earlier in August and was in a coma.” State television didn’t cover Kim Jong-il’s ailments. “All they showed on state TV was old documentary footage but no new images that have been moving for months. North Korea never acknowledged his illness — never.” Finally, there is the tracking of commercial and private flights. This website shows flights over a typical 48-hour period. Notice how empty it is over North Korea. Only about half a dozen commercial airliners land in Pyongyang’s airport each day. So any unscheduled flight should stand out. If Kim Jong-un was severely ill, analysts may watch for a specific type of flight arriving in Pyongyang. “I would look for charter flights because if it was a major medical procedure, there’s a very high chance that they would have retained foreign physicians to do the procedure.” North Korea watchers have used flight tracking in the past for clues about the ruler’s intentions. In 2018, unscheduled cargo plane flights were quickly spotted leaving Pyongyang bound for Vladivostok, Russia. Both were believed to have been involved in sanctions violations by the regime. None of these techniques alone can provide a full picture of Kim’s life. Analysts also heavily rely on human and intelligence sources. And despite modern technology and expertise, the regime still manages to keep most of its internal affairs away from prying eyes. [CHOIR HUMMING]



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