Rumours over North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ’s health have swirled this year, and the latest is that he has given his sister, Kim Yo-jong , partial authority over the country to ease his workload. But long-time observers have raised scepticism over these claims, pointing out no one has a full grasp of the situation in North Korea . Given that Pyongyang’s stability is a concern for the world because its stockpile of nuclear warheads could grow to 100 by the year’s end, the struggle to read the signals continues. Was Kim Jong-un really on the verge of death? Kim’s health has come under intense scrutiny since a former lawmaker in South Korea claimed the dictator was comatose. “I assess him to be in a coma, but his life has not ended,” said Jang Sung-min on his Facebook page on August 21. Jang, a former aide to late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, cited an unnamed source in China for his information. He pointed to an assessment by South Korea’s spy agency on the same day that Kim had delegated some new duties to his aides, including his sister Kim Yo-jong, as further evidence of his claim. Jang insisted the North’s supreme leader would only have relinquished some of his authority if he was seriously incapacitated. Is Kim Jong-un ill? Reports shine light on North Korea’s rumour mill His claims quickly ricocheted across the media worldwide, producing headlines suggesting the third-generation dictator was seriously ill. Yet there is little reason to believe Jang’s claims or associated speculation that the North Korean leader is on death’s door. On August 26, North Korean state media pictured Kim presiding over a politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party convened the previous day to discuss measures to respond to Typhoon Bavi and Covid-19 . In fact, Jang’s claims regarding Kim’s health aren’t new – in April, he told a South Korean magazine that the dictator was in a coma. He has claimed that photos of Kim in state media since then were faked. Why are there so many rumours about him? Kim’s health has been a regular source of unsubstantiated rumours and speculation, in part due to his weight and heavy smoking habit, but also because of a voracious public appetite for information about the secretive regime that leads even the most thinly-sourced claims to be amplified. In April, the rumour mill went into overdrive after CNN reported that Washington was “monitoring intelligence” that Kim was in “grave danger” following surgery. The report, which cited an anonymous US official, sparked a flurry of speculation that Kim was seriously ill or even dead. From Kim’s 38-under to World Cup wins, the sport is in mythmaking After nearly three weeks out of the limelight, Kim in May was pictured attending the opening of a fertiliser factory in Sunchon, near the capital Pyongyang. “The unusually opaque nature of the North Korean regime tends to lead to a lot of misinformation and poor analysis about the country's situation,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former North Korea analyst with the United States government. “That is especially true of the North Korean leadership, which is an elusive topic even for those experts who have studied North Korea for dozens of years.” Is Kim Yo-jong a leader-in-waiting? While it is difficult to observe the levers of power inside the regime, there is widespread agreement that Kim Yo-jong, the leader’s younger sister, has become an increasingly influential figure inside her brother’s inner circle. An assessment by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service that the younger Kim was recently delegated new responsibilities was just the latest indication of her growing clout, after years of hovering in the background during her brother’s public appearances. North Korea’s first sister Kim Yo-jong lurks and steals the spotlight In June, state media reported that Kim Yo-jong and a veteran hardline official had ordered the cessation of communications with the South, with Kim quoted lambasting the Seoul government as “betrayers and riff-raff” for not preventing North Korean defector activists from flying anti-regime leaflets across the heavily-militarised inter-Korean border. A few days earlier, she had warned the South would be “forced to pay a dear price” if it did not act to stop the “evil conduct by rubbish-like mongrel dogs”. Kim Yo-jong’s growing prominence has led to speculation that she could be next in line to take charge if her brother is unable to rule, despite strongly patriarchal norms that discourage female leadership in North Korea. Kim Jong-un’s sister warns ‘enemy’ South Korea of military action South Korean officials have offered differing assessments of the extent of her authority in recent days. On August 25, Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo told lawmakers Kim Yo-jong likely controlled the powerful Organisation and Guidance Department, which enforces party ideology and oversees political appointments. The South’s Unification Minister Lee In-young on the same day described assessments placing the younger Kim as the No. 2 figure in the North’s regime, or even on an equal footing with her brother, as “forced”. “It’s not clear how much power he has delegated to his sister, Kim Yo-jong, but she does seem to have assumed major responsibilities, notably in relations with the US and South Korea,” said Donald Kirk, a veteran correspondent who has made multiple reporting trips to the North. Lee, the former US government analyst, said that while Kim Yo-jong’s “special status in the regime” had been clear for some time, it remains to be seen whether she has much power in her own right. “It is possible that she has been given more responsibility, but the question to ask is whether she also has been given more authority,” she said. “In other words, has she taken on more of Kim Jong-un's workload, or has Kim Jong-un entrusted her with the authority to call the shots on certain issues? I think we need more evidence to say with a degree of confidence that she has been given more authority.” Who are Kim Jong-un’s other siblings? Kim Jong-un’s relations with his other siblings are either out of public view or estranged. His elder brother Kim Jong-chul, who is known to be a fan of Eric Clapton, is not involved in the running of the regime and lives an unremarkable life in Pyongyang, according to Thae Yong-ho, the former deputy ambassador to Britain who defected to South Korea in 2016. Kenji Fujimoto , who was the personal sushi chef of second-generation leader Kim Jong-il, wrote in his memoir that Kim Jong-chul was considered too effeminate for leadership by his father. Kim Jong-nam , Kim Jong-un’s older half-brother, was infamously assassinated with a rare nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017, a hit widely believed to have been ordered by the North Korean leader. Little is known about Kim Jong-un’s half-sister, Kim Sol-song, although she has been speculated to have held important positions in various decision-making bodies inside the regime. What is Kim Jong-un like as a leader? While Kim has not done much to change the North’s image as one of the most totalitarian and repressive countries, he seems at least to have a more open leadership style in some ways as compared to his father and grandfather. Kim has also been more open in admitting policy mistakes, partly because given the greater use of mobile phones in North Korea, outside information is able to flow more easily into the country, said Lim Jae-cheon, a North Korean studies professor at Korea University in Seoul. “It is part of his ‘proactive’ approach,” Lim said. “Disclosing policy failures proactively, he wants to show his people that he is the man who takes charge of correcting problems to improve their lives, while policy blame is diverted to the other (party and government) officials.” Kirk said that Kim has consolidated power since succeeding his father in December 2011. Apart from getting rid of a number of foes, including his half-brother Kim Jong-nam and uncle Jang Song-thaek – husband of his father’s younger sister, Kim had also eliminated those who might be seen as opposed to his policies. “(Kim) has appeared as a strongman with a sometimes engaging manner, as (seen) in his three meetings with President Donald Trump. His image is that of a dictator totally in control, but this year there have been signs that he is losing his grip,” Kirk noted. Kim-Trump friendship is pointless, North Korea says on summit anniversary Pointing to the far fewer trips and appearances at events that Kim has made around the country, Kirk said that Kim also appeared to have acknowledged the country’s failure at economic reform. Olga Krasnyak, assistant international relations professor at Moscow’s National Research University Higher School of Economics, said despite Kim’s young age, the North Korean leader appears capable and mature. “To the outside world, Kim constantly pursues statecraft and diplomacy inherited from his predecessors,” Krasnyak said, adding that Kim follows a realist-based approach including strategies to appear as powerful as possible at least at the regional level. How is North Korea responding to Covid-19? North Korea, which locked down its borders in January, has yet to confirm any coronavirus cases, although many observers are sceptical that the country has been able to keep the virus out. At his latest politburo meeting on Tuesday, Kim expressed concern about “shortcomings” in the country’s response to the pandemic. “The meeting seriously assessed some defects in the state emergency anti-epidemic work for checking the inroads of the malignant virus, and studied measures to overcome the defects urgently,” the KCNA reported. North Korea’s Kim scolds officials for coronavirus complacency North’s antiquated and overstretched medical system would struggle to cope with any large outbreak of the virus, according to humanitarian workers and health experts familiar with the country. The pandemic is also likely to deal a heavy blow to the country’s fragile economy, which is already under pressure due to international sanctions and flooding caused by ongoing heavy rains. Last week, Kim was quoted in state media acknowledging that “the people’s living standard has not been improved remarkably” after his five-year economic plan had faced “unexpected and inevitable challenges”. North Korea puts city under lockdown after suspected virus case The North’s economy, which is dwarfed dozens of times over by the democratic South, grew 0.4 per cent in 2019, registering its first positive growth in three years, according to an estimate by the South’s central bank. More than 40 per cent of the population suffers from undernourishment, according to UN estimates. “The prolonged Covid situation and the recent flooding in some of the country's key farming regions most likely have exacerbated North Korea’s already poor economic conditions due to international sanctions,” said Lee, the former US government analyst. “However, we should recall that this is a resilient country that has weathered hardships in the past, including the famine of the 90s, and it will survive again this time.” Will North Korea ever agree to denuclearise? Given the breakdown of denuclearisation talks, analysts said it is at least a good sign that Kim has not ordered short-or-mid-range missile tests since April. It also appears uncertain if the North Korean leader is still considering testing another long-range intercontinental ballistic missile that is capable of carrying a warhead to the US, nor does Kim appear to be planning another underground nuclear test, last conducted in September 2017. “So the whole nuclear issue is in a state of suspension – no talks, no obvious movement toward talks, and no tests. In a sense, that’s positive news, since the prospect of nuclear war appears all the more distant while Kim focuses on economic reform,” Kirk said. Kim Jong-un says having nukes will guarantee peace for North Korea However, Lee expressed scepticism over a US-North Korea nuclear deal unless Washington agrees to the phased approach that Pyongyang has called for. Given the moratorium on nuclear and ICBM testing as well as the dismantlement of the nuclear test site in Punggye-ri, North Korea believes that it has already given a number of concessions to Washington. “From Pyongyang’s perspective, the phased approach will have to start with the US giving something back to North Korea,” Lee said. Krasnyak said that the more realistic way to restart North Korea's denuclearisation is with the mediation of third parties, such as with Russia with whom Pyongyang traditionally has friendly ties. “North Korea also needs international guarantees and this can be possible with guarantees of the United Nations Security Council where Russia is a permanent member,” Krasnyak said. Moon’s vision of peace with North Korea goes up in smoke In a recent paper by the Rand Corporation, a Washingtong think-tank, the authors noted that the North Korean leadership sees its nuclear weapons capabilities as essential to safeguarding the regime’s survival. “Only a threat to the regime’s survival would lead it to the existential decision of using a nuclear weapon and risk a massive retaliatory strike,” said the paper, titled North Korean Decision-making: Economic Opening, Conventional Deterrence Breakdown, and Nuclear Use . The paper added that the US has considerable ability to mitigate the use of nuclear force by North Korea through what it calls a combination of restraint, political agreements to reduce mutual threat perceptions and the perceived risk of war, and continued credible deterrent threats. What are the chances of North Korea opening up? While there are few recent signs of North Korea opening up, Kirk noted that “change in priorities and policies is not out of the question”. One possible change is in the area of economic reform, and a party congress scheduled for next January where the announcement and adoption of a five-year economic plan might be a turning point both domestically and in dealings with the rest of the world. “Perhaps in order to fulfil that plan, North Korea will have to accept economic deals with foreign companies and countries that will necessitate shifts in outlook,” Kirk noted. The defectors whose airborne propaganda enraged North Korea The country has remained largely closed to normal economic relations as indicated in the failure of Orascom, the Egyptian telecom giant, in repatriating profits or even just making a return on its investment in North Korea’s mobile phone network. Arguing that North Korea is less likely to open up to the outside world, Krasnyak said this is due to the country following its own pathway of “realist-based politics and self-reliance”. She also suggested that the “wild card” in Pyongyang’s future behaviour would be to preserve a balance between China and Russia. North Koreans eating pet dogs story is of questionable pedigree: Russia “To avoid being economically absorbed or politically dependent on China on one side, and avoid any pressure from the US and its Asian allies – South Korea and Japan – Kim or his successors might deepen cooperation with Russia,” Krasnyak said. The Rand paper pointed out that whether Kim decides to adopt a new economic model or not will be dependent on factors such as a rapid deterioration in central government finances, a relaxation in the necessity of ideological purity, and most importantly the removal from office or death of key leaders who had opposed reform. Other factors affecting reform decisions include incipient famine and widespread demands for improvement in living conditions that threaten to shake Pyongyang’s grip on power, spreading corruption and the erosion of control over the state-led sector of the economy, and/or the loss of a great-power patron, the paper said.