Isaac Stone Fish analyzes the significance of the North Korean leader’s month-plus-long disappearance:
Setting aside for now the impossible question of where Kim has gone — Pyongyang’s state-run media say he is sick, though he could also be under house arrest, dead, on vacation, or simply bored of appearing in public — North Korea is arguably much more stable with Kim at the helm. (First, the eternal caveat when writing about North Korea: The country is more opaque than an eye afflicted with cataracts, so much of what I’m writing is speculation.)
The most dangerous thing about North Korea is its unpredictability. Because we know so little about what Pyongyang wants, or why it does what it does, it’s difficult to prepare for contingencies.
… Much of the burden of an imploding North Korea would fall on the backs of North Koreans, but the country’s collapse could also destabilize northeast China by sending hundreds of thousands of refugees across North Korea’s northern border — and allow rogue elements in North Korea to sell nuclear material to enemies of the United States.
William Pesek elaborates on the China angle:
[W]hat’s most intriguing about North Korea these days are signs China is fed up with Kim’s antics and may be tightening the financial screws. Concrete evidence is hard marshal, of course; Beijing keeps a tight lid on its machinations at home, never mind its relationship with Pyongyang. But whereas former Chinese President Hu Jintao maintained a working relationship with his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Il, who died in December 2011, China’s current leader Xi Jinping has been decidedly cool toward Kim the younger.
And Joshua Keating focuses on the timing:
Kim’s absence also comes at a critical moment. North Korea sent a surprising and unprecedented high-profile delegation, including Kim’s two closest aides, to Seoul last weekend, and the two sides have agreed to resume reconciliation talks. This is a major shift after months of aggressive rhetoric from the North Korean side. This resumption of talks could be a sign that something serious has changed behind the scenes in Pyongyang. Or, less excitingly, as unnamed U.S. officials suggest to Reuters, it could simply be “diplomatic tactics by Pyongyang, aimed at dividing and weakening international pressure over its nuclear weapons program and human rights record as well as propaganda for domestic consumption.”