This is a mystery that might make Carmen Sandiego jealous.
As told by Beth’s News Notes, and by The Hill, KCNA (the North Korean state-controlled news agency) has made several reports, with photos, implying that Kim Jong Un visited a potato farm (or farms) during the time US Secretary of State Pompeo was in North Korea for high-level denuclearization negotiations. Pompeo had wanted to meet with Kim while in North Korea. The Hill noted that a number of western, or free-press, news outlets had judged that “the photos of the visit to the Junghung potato farm were far more in-depth than usual”, from which one could infer that the North Koreans wanted to emphasize the reason for Kim’s absence. North Korea has described the negotiations with Pompeo, which took place July 6-7, as “regrettable”, and the US position as “gangster-like”: an obviously hard-line attitude compared to what Kim projected at the Singapore summit.
An over-reported farm inspection and a change of attitude, by themselves, do not mean much. But, of course, there’s more to this story.
On Monday, July 9, Kim’s private jet (the equivalent of America’s Air Force One), was reported by The Chosunilbo, among other news organizations, to have flown into Vladivostok, Russia. After three hours, the plane left Vladivostok and returned to North Korea. This was confirmed by UPI, and Flight Radar 24,
an aircraft tracking service. A South Korean Ministry of Unification spokesman commented that, “there is very little chance of Kim Jong [Un] being on board. Considering that the plane landed in Vladivostok, the trip appears to be related to the upcoming Eastern Economic Forum in September.” In other words, just a routine flight.
The Chosunilbo story went on to say that, besides skipping the denuclearization negotiations and a meeting with Pompeo, Kim also did not attend a basketball match with South Korea, which they described as ‘friendly’. Kim is an avid basketball fan. More surprisingly, North Korea state media did not even mention Kim Jong Un when reporting on a ceremony commemorating the 24th anniversary of the death of Kim Il-sung, his grandfather and founder of the North Korean nation. The state media’s failure to mention the country’s current leader on such an important national occasion suggests that Jong Un was absent from the ceremony and it also suggests the silence was intentional.
Getting back to the mystery flight, Sputnik News, a semi-official Russian news outfit, reported on the media buzz in South Korea surrounding the flight, and noted that Kim’s plane was only ‘alleged’ to have been seen in Russia and suggested that it was merely speculation.
The next day, July 10, the Russian news agency TASS, said that the Vladivostok airport denied that Kim’s aircraft had landed there. This in spite of the aircraft tracking service radar evidence. Apparently they also determined that it was not real news, and placed it in their Society & Culture section.
What could have been the reason for Kim’s personal jet to go to Russia? According to the Daily Mail, Putin has invited Kim to meet him in Vladivostok in September. However, if it had been a routine flight, possibly “related to the upcoming Eastern Economic Forum in September”, then why would the Russians need to lie about it?
Geopolitical Futures, in a subsection of their Daily Memo dated July 9, 2018, raises an interesting possibility, saying that, “Recently there have been hints that hard-liners in Pyongyang are unhappy with Kim’s pivot to improving relations with the United States. Now there are whispers that Kim has not been seen in public for a few days”, and, “Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, also hasn’t been seen since Singapore. (Her pregnancy may have something to do with that, of course.)”
Without a doubt, that’s pure speculation and North Korean despots and family members have gone periods of time before without being seen in public. News.com.au reported in September 2014 that Kim had been ill for three weeks, just to cite one example.
Interestingly, The News Blender reported on July 12, that, “North Korea Is a No-Show At Talks To Return Soldiers”. This could be just another negotiating tactic on the part of North Korea. Alternatively, it could be a sign of a country experiencing a leadership vacuum or a struggle for power.
Lastly, one final clue: in another article, The Chosunilbo reported that, as of Tuesday, July 10, Kim was still inspecting farms “near the Chinese border”.
Why this matters
The man is dedicated to finding the perfect spud.
There are a number of clues to this mystery, but more questions than answers.
North Korea is not known for transparency in reporting. Even so, an in-depth series of North Korean reports covering Kim’s potato tour seems a bit out of the ordinary. And why just still photos? Why not video of the great leader inspecting root vegetables? Also, there’s no proof of when the pictures of Kim partying with potatoes were taken. They could just as easily have been taken earlier this year.
Why did the North Koreans want to emphasize the reason for Kim’s absence? What was the intended message and who was their intended audience? Was it meant for domestic consumption? Was Kim telling US that he’d rather negotiate with potatoes than Pompeo?
Why are the Russians lying about Kim’s plane flying into Vladivostok? What are they trying (so poorly) to hide?
What’s the reason for all the cloak and dagger? Is Kim ill? Is the military holding Kim and concealing his whereabouts? Have hard-liners seized power? Is he under house arrest (or worse)? Did he flee the country?
If senior military officials have deposed Kim and his family, is the US any better off dealing with them than Kim? That seems highly unlikely (unless Trump saluted one of them).
Once again, be cautioned that all of this is absolute speculation and probably amounts to nothing, as North Korea has always been extremely opaque as a matter of practice. Obfuscation and deception is a way of life for the communist government.
But it is interesting to think about.
Do you have additional clues or an interesting theory on where in the world Rocket Man-diego might be? What’s really going on here?