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Where is North Korea’s Kim Jong Un? An expert weighs in

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un remained out of the public view on Saturday, as rumors continue to swirl that he is gravely ill. As that scenario is unfolding, the secretive country continues to maintain it has zero cases of COVID-19 within its borders, a claim that has been widely questioned. Jean Lee, director of the Korea program at the Wilson Center, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In North Korea today, there was still no sign of the country's leader, Kim Jong un. It's not unusual for North Korean leaders to disappear from public view sometimes for weeks at a time. But Kim missed a significant ceremony last week. That sparked speculation about his health. His last public appearance was April 11th. Another mystery: the secretive country continues to claim there are zero cases of COVID-19 there. Joining us today from Washington, D.C. is Jean Lee, director of the Korea program at the Wilson Center. Let's start with the humanitarian crisis. How equipped is North Korea to deal with something like the coronavirus?

  • Jean Lee:

    North Korea has such a fragile health care system. You know, I visited so many hospitals and clinics during my years reporting there. They didn't have heat. They didn't have running water. You know, often they just had two water basins. It was like something out of a different century. So, especially we talk about something like the importance of hand-washing, they don't have soap, they don't have water. They don't have electricity. And certainly the last time I was there was in 2017. So it's been a couple of years, but even the most up to date hospitals, were lacking in antibiotics, lacking in basic supplies. And there was one clinic I went to where the doctor told me that most of their deaths were for something as simple as diarrhea, that they didn't have the ability to stop diarrhea and that kids would die because they simply couldn't stop it. So I just think about how ill equipped North Korea is to deal with a pandemic like coronavirus.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How believable is it, then, that a country adjacent to China would have no cases at all?

  • Jean Lee:

    It's very hard to believe. I mean, they did take very strict measures and stopped much of the traffic in and out of the country in January. However, it is the only country bordering China that claims it has no cases. The only other countries that have claimed these cases, no cases, are either Pacific Island countries or countries that have a very poor record when it comes to providing proper information. And so I think we do have to question whether this information is accurate.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Let's talk a little bit about the rumors from earlier this week, because that's all they are. It's very hard to get any fact verified from North Korea. But, how is Kim Jong Un's health?

  • Jean Lee:

    It was such a frenzy of speculation this week. And at this point, we still don't know. The state of the leader's health is something that is a closely guarded secret. And certainly, if he is as ill as they say, that would be something that they would keep a close hold on. And I don't think that we will know for quite some time, if ever. This brings me back to 2008 when Kim Jong-il, his father, had suffered a stroke and was in a coma. It took several weeks before the world found out that he was ill and in a coma. And that was simply because he didn't turn up at a major military parade. And so it's a country that has such a good hold on the flow of information. You know, these, they are rumors at this point. But often time, oftentimes in a country like North Korea, where we have so little access to the government, so little access to reliable information, there is a kernel of truth in these rumors. And so it is something that we need to pay attention to. I think it reflects the concerns not only inside the country, but outside the country that his health is a factor and that it could lead to a question of stability inside the country. And that is something. Instability in North Korea, at this time during a pandemic when it has been developing nuclear weapons is not something that any country wants.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    If it was true that Kim Jong Un is gravely ill to the point of being dead, how would we know? How does the state announce something like that?

  • Jean Lee:

    That is information that only a few people would be privy to. So we should be very wary that any of the rumors out there are from people who are in a position to know. And so I think that honestly, we may not have any confirmation for information like that, if and when it happens, until North Korea releases it publicly. I was at the North Korean embassy. There was no sign that anything was amiss. I do not think that anyone outside of that inner circle has information about the state of his health or whether he is truly dead or alive.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Jean Lee, Director of the Korea program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Jean Lee:

    Thanks for having me.

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