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Hither and Yon

Cane or swagger stick? We report, you decide

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
Why do the North Koreans simply refuse to follow the logic and needs of foreign analysts when it comes to the timing of great events?
Here everyone was saying that Kim Jong-Un had to show up for the 69th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party one week ago, and he was a total no-show. Then, four days later, he’s on the front page of the party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, smiling happily as he visits a newly built complex for the nation’s scientific elite.
Could the “supreme leader” have revived over the weekend after having been suffering so severely as not to have been able to have made even a brief appearance at the final resting place of his dynastic forebears, his grandfather, “eternal president” Kim Il-Sung, and his father, Kim Jong-Il, “eternal general secretary” and “eternal chairman” of the national defense commission?
Did his handlers, seeing those sensational reports in the foreign media, decide the heir to all that power had to put on a public display to snuff out tales of a power struggle, or maybe a coup d’etat?
Now all we’re left with is the issue of why the young man was walking with a cane after having been seen on state TV limping without one before disappearing from public view in early September. Did it really take 40 days to treat his leg, to get him accustomed to the cane and, if so, what was wrong with the leg in the first place? Gout, as initially reported?
Perhaps he has tendonitis — or a tendon that snapped while crawling in the mud in a grueling military exercise? Oh please, who’s going to believe the kid was really prostrate on his outsized stomach, heaving and panting with the troops? Surely the toadies who follow him around taking notes on whatever he says would have talked him out of that one.
Or, as another report suggested, did he break an ankle while alighting from the white horse on which he’s so heroically photographed? That could happen. Before his vanishing act, his weight had climbed to about 130 kilograms. That’s way past the threshold of obesity for a man who’s about 1.75 meters tall — five feet, nine inches. I’m told it’s seriously dangerous for an obese person to jump too hard and fast off a horse. Don’t let those statues of fat generals on prancing stallions fool you.
Such speculation aside, it’s really too bad there was no sure answer to what the kid was doing for 40 days — just ever more speculation as to what had befallen him, whether he was personally in command or the puppet on strings pulled by mysterious figures currently assumed to be led by Hwang Pyong-So, vice marshal and vice chairman of the national defense commission.
The speculation won’t stop just because the kid re-emerged in public, but for now let us forget about upheaval in the ruling structure in Pyongyang.
All of which comes as a terrible disappointment for the media, desperate for a story, a real story for a change, about conflict and crisis in North Korea.
For years now, whenever people believed, finally, the inevitable “collapse” was at hand, North Korea failed to collapse. Sorry, but forecasts of “implosion,” a favorite word of academic and media analysts to describe the North caving under political and economic pressure, always turn out to be more than a little premature.
OK, so what was Kim Jong-Un up to as reports proliferated of maybe the end of the Kim dynasty?
For one thing, he, his doctors and handlers had to decide, dare we show him to our people, and the rest of the world, walking with a cane like an old man? That had to have been a tough decision. What would North Korea’s 24 million people think of him if he were so weak as to need a cane to get around?
Then came the whole question of what kind of cane to get. Canes come in a wild variety of sizes and contours, of materials and colors. Carried properly, they look rather fashionable.
In the case of the supreme leader, the cane had to denote authority. He’s chosen a rather modest one — a dark model, made of lacquered wood or aluminum, which looks rather like the swagger stick that military commanders sometimes carry as they strut before their troops.
In the coming months, Pyongyang-watchers will no doubt enjoy analyzing changes in the color and texture of the cane.
Oh yes, while he was on leave from normal duties, the kid also watched his diet. Judging from the photographs, he’s lost about 20 kilograms, more than 40 pounds. No more cheese, no more ice cream sundaes. That was quite a sacrifice. Medical specialists had to be flown in to advise him of the dangers of gluttony.
All this, of course, is speculative and unsubstantiated, but what else can you do in the absence of proof or evidence?
Should we all stop writing about crises in North Korea? No way.
Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering crises in Korea and much of the rest of Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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