In 1853 Czar Nicholas I, in a conversation with the British ambassador, reportedly coined the phrase “sick man of Europe” to describe the decaying Ottoman Empire. The corrupt and debt-ridden Ottomans soon dragged England, France, and Russia into conflict in Crimea, just as the czar had feared. The slow, painful demise of the Ottoman Empire then involved the great European powers in a series of Balkan crises, culminating in the 1914 assassination in Sarajevo that triggered World War I.
Kim Jong-un’s recent reemergence with cane in hand, after a prolonged period of absence from the limelight, seems the perfect embodiment of North Korea’s position as the “sick man of Asia.” Just as a prosperous and powerful Europe grappled for decades, ultimately unsuccessfully, over what to do about its weakest link, the strong and prosperous Pacific powers have faced, so far unsuccessfully, the dilemma of a weak but nuclear-armed North Korea. A series of diplomatic formulae, including the Agreed Framework, the Six-Party Talks, and, most recently, the aborted Leap Day Agreement of 2012, have all come to naught. Pyongyang, like Constantinople, seems on perpetual life support, gasping for air but never quite expiring.
The transition to rule by the third generation of the “Baekdu bloodline” (descendants of North Korea’s founder and anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter Kim Il-sung) in December 2011 has been anything but smooth. The “juche” state was left in the shaky hands of the inexperienced, vain, and insecure Kim Jong-un, who lacked the extended period of apprenticeship that his father Kim Jong-il enjoyed before he assumed the reins of power.
Kim Jong-un’s vanity has been on display in the promotion of costly yet impractical construction projects that would be worthy of a pharaoh. These public works involve the mobilization of the masses—soldiers and students in addition to laborers—in “speed campaigns” to achieve hasty completion according to Kim Jong-un’s whim. The projects, including an elaborate ski resort, a refurbished amusement park, and an aquarium with a dolphin show, have done little to address the chronic malnutrition and meager living standards of a people isolated in an island of poverty in the midst of the most economically dynamic region of the world.
The projects, ostensibly undertaken to promote tourism, reflect the young general’s narcissistic lifestyle, as vividly described last year by retired basketball star Dennis Rodman. Rodman had made a visit with Kim Jong-un to the latter’s pleasure island, complete with horseback riding, free-flowing alcohol, and yachts.
The indulgent lifestyle probably also explains the use of a cane by thirty-something Kim Jong-un. He allegedly suffers from a series of debilitating illnesses—including obesity, gout, diabetes, and high blood pressure—usually associated with individuals twice his age. The report that he was near death or had even died during his prolonged absence from the public eye, however, was not credible. Even Henry VIII, who engaged in a similarly lustful and lavish lifestyle that ravaged his body, managed to hang on until the age of 55.
Further, the trip to South Korea by a high-level North Korean delegation for the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in Incheon in early October, in the midst of Kim Jong-un’s mysterious disappearance, belied the rumors of a possible coup. None of the inner circle of National Defence Commission vice chairman Hwang Pyong-so, Vice Marshall Choe Ryong-hae, and Kim Yang-gon, a secretary of the Korean Workers’ party (KWP), would have left the North Korean capital if credible coup rumors had indeed been circulating.
Still, it has been quite noticeable that in almost three years in power, Kim Jong-un, who once lived as a student in Switzerland where he was reportedly an avid fan of Western sports teams and rock music, has not dared to leave the country. This indicates a degree of insecurity and is in marked contrast to his father, Kim Jong-il, who is thought to have traveled three times to China and once to the Russian Far East during the last two years of his life. Kim Jong-un’s lack of an invitation to visit Beijing, North Korea’s sole ally in the world, has reached the point of embarrassment—especially after President Park Geun-hye of rival South Korea was invited on a state visit to Beijing in 2013, which was reciprocated by a visit to Seoul of Chinese president Xi Jinping this summer.