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And the prominent role played by sister Kim Yo-jong may indicate persistent speculation about the 36-year-old’s health may have some basis in fact, Dr James Hoare, a research associate with the Japan and Korea Section at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, suggested. However, he also stressed the 36-year-old’s infamous ruthlessness, which has seen him order the execution of his uncle and the assassination of his half-brother since he took over following the death of father Kim Jong-il in 2011, should not be underestimated by anyone predicting his downfall. Kim’s failure to attend an event to mark the birthday of Kim Il-sung, his grandfather and the founder of the nation on April 15 triggered frenzied speculation about his health, with suggestions he was either dead as a result of botched heart surgery, or in a vegetative state.
Dr Hoare told Express.co.uk it was “unusual” for Kim to miss the event.
However, he added: “In some ways, there are hints that he is distancing himself from his father and his grandfather, and perhaps also from the excessive attention paid to such events.
“He seems to be modifying his position somewhat and maybe modernising his approach to leadership.”
Dr Hoare, a former career diplomat who has visited North Korea on a number of occasions, admitted: “It’s very hard to tell.
“There are large areas that we know very little about and the leadership is particularly like that.”
Irrespective, the two-week period during which Kim was absent from the public illustrated the intense worldwide interest in the instantly recognisable figure – as well as the relative precariousness of the position he occupies.
I don’t think he is as powerful as his father or his grandfather was
Dr James Hoare
Dr Hoare said: “I don’t think he is as powerful as his father or his grandfather was.
“His grandfather had been a guerrilla fighter and had a Japanese price on his head, and he had been in the Soviet Red Army in the Second World War.
“He purged all possible enemies and was in a very strong and powerful position and he had a highly effective propaganda machine.
“Kim Jong-il was perhaps in some ways less strong – he did not have that guerrilla background – but he had 20 years of preparation.
“Kim Jong-un was thrown into it with the sudden death of his father so he has had a fairly steep learning curve and he is obviously very dependent on the security system.
“So in a sense he not as strong as either his grandfather or father.”
Dr Hoare added: “On the other hand he seems to be very determined and pretty ruthless.
“If he feels there is any sort of threat, like killing his uncle or having his half-brother assassinated, that’s how it is.”
Kim’s leadership has been notable for the prominent role played by 32-year-old Kim Yo-jong, Dr Hoare noted.
“She has played such a role more or less since her brother came into power.”
She had disappeared from view in the wake of last year’s Hanoi summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump, which is widely regarded to have been an unqualified failure, Dr Hoare said.
However, he added: “She has clearly emerged and it may indicate that her brother does have health problems.
“She seems to have an awful lot of self-confidence.”
Kim Yo-jong has been touted as a possible successor to her brother – but Dr Hoare suggested such a move would be difficult in a male-dominated society such as North Korea.
Addressing the rumours of Kim’s death, Dr Hoare said he had been sceptical at the time.
He added: “If you looked at the story when it came out, it was one source from a separate organisation which claims to have links within the country, which can only given the nature of the way phones work, you can only use a foreign mobile phone really either close to the demilitarised zone, which is highly dangerous, or up on the Chinese border.
“Otherwise you can’t pick up an outside signal.
“And both of those areas are a long way from the centre of power.
“But even that story just said he was ill and was being treated – it didn’t say he was at death’s door or he was dying or anything.
“That was the gloss that built up around it but there was never any real evidence.
“I didn’t think it likely – there were no signs of the leader being totally incapacitated.
“If he had been, you would have had a state of alert, probably, in Pyongyang, which is after all the centre where any likely coup is going to take place.
“But everything continued more or less as normal – the embassy functioned as normal.
“If there was an impossible crisis they would not have kept it quiet all that time.”
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