Asia Politics

North Korea’s “supreme leader” mysteriously vanished from the public eye for three weeks

Kim Jong-un went weeks without public appearances, and the world is still wondering what he was up to. There is widespread speculation, including that he underwent heart surgery, was in COVID-19 quarantine, and even that he was in a “vegetative state.” But North Korean state media still refuses to answer or acknowledge global queries. Plus, learn the English phrasal verb “pore over.”

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  • Kim Jong-un is not dead. Probably not dead.

    Hi there, welcome back to Plain English. This is Lesson 258. I’m Jeff, JR is the producer, and you can find this full lesson online at PlainEnglish.com/258.

    Coming up today: North Korea’s authoritarian leader Kim Jong-un appeared at a fertilizer factory. This came after a three-week absence during which the world speculated that he was either in great health, in a vegetative state, or dead. The phrasal verb is to “pore over.” The video lesson is about how to describe the passage of time when very little is happening. So check that one out at PlainEnglish.com/258.


    North Korea leader re-emerges after 3 week absence

    North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un appeared at a public ceremony at a fertilizer factory in Sunchon. The country’s state media released photos of Kim cutting a ribbon and clapping his hands at the event. The workers of the factory “burst into thunderous cheers” for their leader, the state media said. A fertilizer factory can be used to produce fertilizer, which aids in agriculture, or it can be used in the extraction of uranium, a key ingredient in a nuclear bomb. As such, the event conveniently served the dual objectives of domestic propaganda and international provocation. In other words, a typical day in the life of the world’s most mysterious dictator.

    Except that this day came after weeks of speculation that he was dead. The rumors started when Kim was mysteriously absent for a prominent holiday, the Day of the Sun, on April 15. The national holiday that marks the birthday of Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, the founder of North Korea. It is the country’s most important holiday and is an opportunity to reinforce the Kim family’s military and psychological power over the population. This year was the 108th birthday of Kim Il-Sung and it was the first time in the younger Kim’s tenure that he missed the occasion.

    The speculation started almost immediately and grew over time; days went by with no news from the country’s so-called “supreme leader.” He may simply have been avoiding crowds that day due to COVID-19, one story said. It has a certain logic. The country couldn’t acknowledge the fact because its official position is that there is no COVID-19 in North Korea. Another story said Kim had contracted COVID-19 and that he was recovering or in quarantine.

    A South Korean web site that publishes stories about North Korea based on a network of undercover sources said that the obese leader had had heart surgery. Soon rumors circulated that he was in “very grave danger;” another said he was in a “vegetative state” after botched open-heart surgery. More stories said that China had to send doctors over the border to rescue the ailing Kim. Weeks went by without any public appearances by Kim, and the state media refused to answer—or even acknowledge—any questions about his health or his absence from public events. During the absence, the government continued to send letters with Kim’s signature from his office.

    A defector from North Korea, who currently serves in South Korea’s parliament, said there was a 99 percent chance that Kim was dead. An American news report said that U.S. government was monitoring the situation closely and that Kim was “in grave danger.”

    Intelligence analysts around the world analyzed satellite photos of North Korea, looking for clues. Toward the end of April, a train and several luxury boats were spotted at a resort area that Kim likes to visit, dampening the frenzy a bit. South Korea’s government maintained that nothing was amiss in the relations between the two countries.

    On May 1, North Korean state media released photos of Kim at the fertilizer factory, twenty days after his most recent public appearance. They had no comment on the length of his public absence. The following day, they released a video of the same event, showing Kim cutting a ribbon, walking, talking, clapping and smoking. Media have pored over the materials released since then, analyzing Kim’s use of a golf cart and a new brown spot on his arm.

    The world may never know the reason—if any—for Kim’s recent absence. But the world found out quickly how little it knows about the potential succession in North Korea if Kim were to die. He has not identified a successor. He is rumored to have a son, but the boy would be too young to rule. Kim has murdered two male relatives—an uncle and a half brother.

    He has a sister—she appeared with him at the fertilizer factory—and another uncle, who have been rumored to be potential candidates. But the truth is, no succession plan has been made public, and there is a real possibility of chaos if he dies. Government analysts around the world are said to be planning for a struggle to control the country’s dozens of nuclear weapons, mass immigration, famine, and revolution.


    What a strange place. You hear about the absurdity of Kim Jong-un—the cult of personality, all that stuff—and it’s tempting to laugh. But then I saw the video of him at the fertilizer factory and I saw thousands of people waving banners and cheering for him, and you know they’re prisoners. It’s sad.

    I’ve promised you a little more news about the new web site, so here’s probably the biggest change you’ll see. Right now, each lesson is a single page on the web site. On the new site, which will be out June 1, each lesson will be broken up into multiple pages. So there will be one page for the main lesson, about the current event or trending topic. There will be another page for the expression, another page for the video, and two more pages for additional exercises and activities.

    The reason we’re doing this is so that you can more easily explore the expressions and the video lessons from the past. You know, we have over 250 expressions in our archive. And we have over 70 video lessons, too. But it’s hard to find them! You can’t easily browse the expressions or video lessons today because they’re buried inside the main episode page.

    So two things. One, we’ll have pages that we call Libraries. And the Libraries will be easy ways to browse and explore only the expressions or only the video lessons. The other key benefit to this is, if I’m writing an episode and I find myself using an expression that we talked about in the past, I can link directly to that expression’s page. I find that all the time, I’m using the expressions that I’ve explained in the past. Now, I’ll be able to link to them, so you can see an Expression and jump right to the old lesson in which I explained it.

    So that’s the biggest change to the web site. We’re splitting the audio up, so that only the relevant audio is on each page. However, like I said last week, the experience of listening on Spotify or your podcast app won’t change.

    Pore over

    The English expression we have for you today is to “pore over.” To pore over something is to study it closely. And “pore” in this case is “p-o-r-e”, and we rarely use this word “pore” in any other way besides in this phrasal verb, pore over.

    The authoritarian leader of North Korea, a nuclear power, disappeared for almost three weeks. The government later released photos and a video of him. The international media pored over the materials to try to discover any hidden clues about Kim’s health. The international media pored over the materials.

    They studied them closely. How well was Kim walking? Was he walking faster or slower than usual? He was riding in a golf cart; the last time he visited this fertilizer plant, he did not use a golf cart. Once before when he was sick a golf cart was present. Then again, he does sometimes use a golf cart when he’s healthy. So was he using the golf cart more than normal?

    Wait, what’s that on his arm? It looks like a small brown spot. There wasn’t a brown spot on his arm in his last public appearance. Is he breathing normally or more heavily than usual?

    All the little details—the media examined it very closely and for a long time. They pored over the new photos and the new videos.

    India is a cricket-mad country. They love the sport of cricket. And if you don’t catch it live, you can see the scorecard after the match is over. If you look closely, you can tell a lot about what happened in the game by looking at the scorecard. You can pore over the scorecard and try to imagine how the game was really played. In baseball, the scorecard is called the “box score,” and baseball fans used to do the same thing, in the days before the internet. The newspaper would have the box scores of all the previous day’s games—and fans would pore over the box scores to figure out who did well the previous day. I was one of those fans as a kid; now, I just get my updates on my phone.

    When new coronavirus statistics are released, experts pore over the reports, looking for clues about whether the virus is slowing down or getting worse. Come election time, forecasters pore over the results of the polls in the days and weeks before an election, trying to guess who will win.

    Last year, a researcher in England discovered a 17th-century copy of Shakespeare’s texts, with handwriting in the margins. The handwriting belonged to another famous writer of the time, John Milton. Here was an example of one legendary writer commenting on another’s works. The researchers pored over the writing in the margin, trying to figure out what the second-best writer of the 17th century thought about the first-best writer’s works. They studied the writing very carefully.

    You might be able to do that—maybe not with an original Shakespeare manuscript. What might you pore over in your personal life? Maybe you have a recipe book that your mom or your grandmother used to use. Or in the attic, you might find letters your grandfather wrote to your grandmother before they were married. You might pore over them, looking for clues about how they lived.

    Some people are into genealogy. That is the study of your ancestors—who were they, where did they live, when and where were they born, where did they move during their lives, what jobs did they have? Some people like to build elaborate family trees. They pore over public records, newspaper clippings, letters, anything that would give them a clue about their ancestors.

    Quote of the week

    Today’s quote of the week is from the former US President Calvin Coolidge. He’s one of my favorites in American history; his nickname was Silent Cal. The kind of person who could never win an election today. Here’s the quote: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.”

    The quote goes on after that, but you get the point. Persistence is the willingness of a person to keep trying to get what you want. “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence,” says Calvin Coolidge.


    That’s all for today. Coming up tomorrow, we’re going to talk about the complications of re-opening a large economy after COVID-19. Governments have to figure out, what comes first, when to re-open, how to make that decision. It’s not easy, and at least in the United States, we are doing it unevenly. That is Thursday’s topic.

    In the meantime, remember, to get all the updates about the new Plain English web site, come visit us at PlainEnglish.com/new and I’ll give you the first glimpse at the super-secret design, colors, logos, et cetera. PlainEnglish.com/new.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

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Angie

I find this new very interesting. Maybe it’s better that he wasn’t dead, who knows what would have happened.