Are we witnessing another power play in North Korea?

In an age of unending available information, North Korea stands alone.  No reliable information comes from that reclusive, totalitarian kingdom.  This means that North Korea–watchers, including geographically vulnerable South Korea, have to try interpreting whatever drips and drops they do manage to obtain.

A couple of weeks ago, there was speculation that Kim Jong-un, the current dictator, was in a coma or even dead and that his sister, Kim Yo-jong, was about to take over.  On the old theory that the female of the species is deadlier than the male, many were worried, but it may be that their worry was premature.

For some time, rumors circulated that Kim Jong-un was in a coma, with his sister taking on a starring role:

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has fallen into a coma, a former South Korean official is claiming on the heels of reports that the northern leader has ceded some of his power to his younger sister.

Chang Song-min, a former aide to late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, has alleged that the Hermit Kingdom's honcho has become seriously ill amid speculation about his limited public appearances this year, the Mirror reported.

"I assess him to be in a coma, but his life has not ended," he told South Korean media.

The former aide added that the leader's younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, was poised to help lead the country.

The White House did not take this latest rumor seriously:

That White House official was correct. North Korea started publishing pictures that are almost certainly contemporaneous, proving that Kim Jong-un is alive:

Who's missing now from the photos is Kim Jong-un's up-and-coming sister, Kim Yo-jong.  There are a few things that could be going on here.  It could all have been a tempest in a teapot, and family relationships are going swimmingly in Pyongyang.  It could also be that Kim Jong-un needed R&R, whether from fatigue or health problems, and that Kim Yo-jong stepped in as a loving sister would.

But there's always the possibility that Kim Yo-jong violated Ralph Waldo Emerson's cardinal rule: "When you strike at a king, you must kill him."  Benedict Brook thinks Yo-jong's strike might have missed.  For the last couple of years, the pretty, but always angry-looking, young woman has seemingly been missing from the public eye:

And yet, just as talk reached fever pitch that she might be next in line to the throne, Ms Kim is nowhere to be seen.

Ms Kim has not been seen in public since July 27. She was absent from a politburo, or cabinet meeting, on August 13, according to NK News.

The images that emerged this week from Pyongyang showed Kim with many high-ranking officials. His sister did not seem to be among them.

Her mistake may have been to become almost too noticeable. Which in turn led to growing speculation about her future ambitions. While she may not have uttered the words "second in command", the fact that's now being openly talked about might have been enough to put her in the bad books.

Moreover, as Brook's also notes, like Ottoman sultans of old, the Kims tend to kill, quite brutally, those family members and their cronies who threaten their power.  North Korea–watchers will have to wait for another cup of tea leaves to interpret before anyone can see with certainty what's going on in the Peyton Place of Pyongyang.

Image: Kim Jong Un at a Workers' Party of Korea Executive Policy Council, from North Korea's state news agency.

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