After weeks of wild speculation about his health, which began as rumors that he was undergoing surgery and escalated into claims that he had in fact died, Chairman Kim Jong Un visually appeared in the media at a ribbon cutting ceremony for a new fertilizer plant.

It was yet another case of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK, or North Korea) magical ability to raise someone from the dead.

All of the think tank experts and media outlets are now struggling to confirm their initial theory by comparing the movement of Chairman Kim’s legs before his “disappearance” and during the ceremony and by ruminating on a “mysterious mark” on his wrist.

Lest the rumors die, on May 03 the South Korean military reported that four bullets fired from the north hit the wall of a South Korean guard post along the Demilitarized Zone. In response, troops in the south fired 20 warning shots.

A Joint Chiefs of Staff officer said the shots were unintentional, as conditions were foggy and the shots came when Korean People’s Army soldiers typically change shifts and check firearms. US Secretary of Defense Mike Pompeo agreed with the assessment.

Given the highly sensitive nature of the situation, the DPRK hasn’t formally responded at this point, and there hasn’t actually been any evidence confirming that the shots came from the north, let alone from the Korean People’s Army.

Despite this, speculation abounds that it was intentional. The most quoted source is Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, who told Reuters: “Yesterday, Kim was trying to show he is perfectly healthy, and today, Kim is trying to mute all kinds of speculation that he may not have full control over the military.”

Dr. Choi’s hypothesis might make sense if the DPRK’s military consisted of a few guys with guns. Maybe then it could be an assertion of control. But the country has an incredibly sophisticated military, and firing four rounds of ammunition isn’t much of a statement.

It might make sense if the DPRK had absolutely anything to gain from such an action. They don’t. In fact, such an action could only hurt them insofar as it is treated as a “provocative” action by the US.

Whenever the DPRK does basically anything, from testing missiles to launching communications satellites, they’re quickly and routinely—and uniquely—condemned.

This is an unjust situation, but one of which the North’s leadership is acutely aware. And now the United Nations Command is investigating to determine whether the shots violated the armistice agreement signed in 1953 to end—or pause—the US-led war against Korea.

It might make sense if the DPRK was looking to antagonize their fellow Koreans in the south. But that’s not the case. In April 2018, Chairman Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in signed the historic Panmunjom Declaration, the second point of which was to eliminate military tensions.

Since then, the two states have made tremendous strides in doing so by removing landmines and dismantling guard posts. US war exercises have continued, although they have been significantly scaled back.


More problematic with Choi’s assertion, however, one that accords with the rumors of Chairman Kim’s death, is the idea that Chairman Kim and the DPRK have something to “prove” to the West.

The logic and force of the West’s colonial gaze is in full force here. Chairman Kim is injured or dead simply because he isn’t visible to the West, and the longer he isn’t visible the more likely it is he is dead. Now he’s “trying to show us” he has control of the military.

The colonialist framework holds that the colonized subject exists only insofar as they’re recognized by the colonizing power. This is the framework under which it’s logical for the colonizer to “discover” a land inhabited by people for centuries.

After “discovery,” colonialism demands the constant visibility and transparency of the colonized. Any retreat from visibility into opacity is an affront to the colonial power.

This explains the constant outrage from the West that the DPRK is “shrouded in secrecy” or a “hermit kingdom: because the West can’t have unfettered access, because they have to deal with assertions of national sovereignty, because they can’t send in weapons inspectors at the will.

The US is, for obvious reason, a significant factor in North Korea’s actions and policies. But as I heard Ri Ki Ho, representative of the DPRK’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in NYC, say at the 2019 Global Peace Forum on Korea: “we’re not obsessed with the US.”

Ri was speaking in the context of the nuclear talks between the US and DPRK, saying that whatever the US did or didn’t do, the DPRK would continue along the path it set forward. It makes perfect sense, but only if we divorce ourselves from the colonialist gaze.

My own take is that the rumors and accusations are primarily intended to halt inter-Korean cooperation. Thus, it’s not a coincidence that the rumors of Chairman Kim’s health coincided with the April 15 legislative elections in South Korea.

The ruling Democratic Party and its allied Platform Party (which might be absorbed within the DPK) won a resounding victory, capturing 180 out of the 300 available seats in the National Assembly. The far-right, represented by the Unified Future Party, performed worse than they had in 60 years.

The election was partly a referendum on the Moon government’s engagement with the DPRK, which has encountered obstacle after obstacle primarily in the form of US sanctions and the domination of the US over South Korea’s military. The result was a clear affirmation of engagement, peace, and reunification with their fellow Korean people in the north.

The rumors and accusations, then, can be seen as an attempt to disorient and disillusion the hopes of the South Korean people, and to present these aspirations within Korea as an impossibility to the people of the world.

They have the added benefit of obstructing any remaining possibility of a rapprochement between the US and DPRK under the Trump administration. Further, depending on the UNC findings, the accusations of gunfire may result in still more sanctions or something even worse.

Regardless of whatever rumors are flying, whatever allegations are in the air, whatever demonization campaign is circulating, the refrain of everyone interested in peace and justice is the same: The Korean people—in the southern and northern parts of the peninsula and in the diaspora—have the rights to peace, liberation, and self-determination, and we will do whatever we can to help them realize those rights.


Derek R. Ford, PhD, is an educator (teaching at a private university in Greencastle, Minneapolis) and organizer, whose latest book is Politics and Pedagogy in the “Post-Truth” Era (Bloomsbury, 2019).

First published by


The 21st Century


Leave a Reply