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North, South Korea Exchange Fire as Kim Extends Mystery Absence

Friday, 10 Oct 2014 06:57 AM

Oct. 10 (Bloomberg) -- North and South Korea exchanged fire over one of the world’s most fortified borders for the second time in a week, at a time when the prolonged absence of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un fuels concern about his grip on power.

North Korea fired multiple rounds from what is believed to be a 14.5mm heavy machine gun across the border today, prompting the South to return fire, Seoul’s Defense Ministry said. No damage was reported on the South Korean side.

Kim hasn’t been seen since Sept. 3, when he attended a concert, and has appeared to walk with a limp in recent months. His prolonged absence has fanned speculation ranging from his being sidelined by gout or diabetes to being overthrown in a coup. Kim missed an annual visit to a family mausoleum today for the first time since he took power, adding to concerns of some type of military provocation from the nuclear-armed regime to distract from speculation over Kim.

“Kim’s health problem could make the North Korean leadership feel more insecure and react more sensitively to outside pressure,” Cheong Seong Chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute near Seoul, said by e-mail. “That could lead to hard-lined policies such as a fourth nuclear test or a long- range rocket launch in a bid to unite the regime.”

A basket of flowers was laid in his name at the statues of his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, at the mausoleum housed in the Kumsusan palace in Pyongyang, the official Korean Central News Agency said. Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong So -- who paid a surprise visit to South Korea last week - - and other officials visited the site to mark the 69th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party.

Nuclear Test

Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, disappeared for more than two months in 2008 after suffering what South Korea and the U.S. believed to be a stroke. In the following year North Korea fired a long-range rocket, exited international disarmament talks and conducted its second underground nuclear test.

South Korea today damped speculation Kim’s five week absence from public view signaled a power shift.

“It appears Kim Jong Un is ruling normally,” Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong Cheol said at a briefing in Seoul today. The ministry based its view on greetings Kim sent to President Park Geun Hye via a high-level delegation that visited the South on Oct. 4 and the fact the North has been reporting on “matters related to Kim’s leadership.”

The government “had no information that could confirm the state of Kim’s health,” Lim said.

Ankle Surgery

“The condition of the North Korean leader is the domestic affair of North Korea, and we don’t comment on that,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters today in Beijing. “China and North Korea have maintained friendly exchanges at various levels.”

Kim, who regularly appears in state media overseeing everything from missile launches to grain harvests, already missed a session of parliament on Sept. 25, sparking reports from the South he may be ill. South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported on Sept. 30 that Kim was hospitalized after surgery on both ankles to address an injury sustained during field supervisions in June.

“Nothing yet indicates there’s a big problem with Kim Jong Un’s absolute power,” Kim Jung Bong, who served in South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and now teaches political science at Hanzhong University, said by phone. “He probably had ankle surgery, and if he doesn’t show up, that means he’s still recovering.”

Monitoring Military

The U.S., South Korea and even China, which has been North Korea’s biggest benefactor, monitor unusual military activity in the country for indications of political instability such as a coup or an assassination. U.S. and South Korean defense officials say they haven’t seen abnormal or noticeable changes by the Korean People’s Army to back such scenarios.

Kim, believed to be about 30, is the subject of intense scrutiny because he exerts dynastic control over 1.2 million troops and a nuclear arms program. He has spent his time in power purging senior officials and installing loyalists to top positions.

“At least in the short term, no major problems will shake the stability of the North Korean regime,” Cheong said. “On top of a monarchical political culture that justifies the third- generation succession, Kim Jong Un has replaced core officials with his confidants and removed anyone who’s not loyal to him since Kim Jong Il’s death.”

Contradictory theories about the young dictator’s absence from public view have underscored the impossibility of penetrating the totalitarian regime’s inner circles.

Defector Network

Speculation over who is in control escalated last week when Hwang, the top political officer in the North’s military, and two other senior officials made a surprise visit to the South for talks that ended in a pledge to improve ties. South Korea’s Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl Jae said in an appearance on KBS Television on Oct. 5 that Kim Yang Gon, the North’s top policymaker on relations with the South, told him during the visit there was “no problem at all” with the leader’s health.

Most attempts at insight on North Korea are made by defectors or nongovernmental rights organizations that maintain contact with North Koreans through illegal mobile phones or USB drives that are smuggled across the Chinese border.

Their reports can be highly unreliable, said Kim from Hanzhong University. He cited a rumor last month that a coup led by North Korean military officer Jo Myong Rok toppled Kim. Jo has been dead since 2010.

Still, defectors have broken some of the most important news about North Korea in recent decades, such as the great famine in the 1990s that killed an estimated 2 million people and the botched 2009 currency overhaul that sent the North Korean won plunging 96 percent.

No Successor

Should young Kim suffer a sudden death, the stakes are high because there is no clear path of succession. There’s been no mention in state media of the young Kim and his wife Ri having children. That raises the prospect of powerful figures in the military taking over and struggling to claim the divine right of leadership that the Kim dynasty has cultivated.

The young Kim consolidated his grip on power by purging senior officials, including the removal in July 2012 of Chief of the General Staff Ri Yong Ho, who guided him in the succession process. In December, Kim removed his uncle and de facto deputy, Jang Song Thaek, on charges of factionalism and graft, and then had him executed.

“With all of the purges of hundreds of officials in the last several years, really there is no sense as to who the next leader would be if there is a sudden departure by Kim,” said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based policy research group.

“No one knows who would get the golden ring of power.”

--With assistance from Sangwon Yoon in United Nations, Seonjin Cha in Seoul and Xin Zhou in Beijing.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Kim in Seoul at skim609@bloomberg.net To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net Andrew Davis, Greg Ahlstrand

© Copyright 2017 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

   
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