30 April 2020
Dead or alive?
By Neil Tidmarsh
On March 27, Alba Maruri, a seventy-four year old woman hospitalised with Covid-19 in Guayaquil, Ecuador, was pronounced dead. Relatives were informed and a week later they received ashes in a cremation urn. On April 23, however, her sister had a telephone call from the hospital; staff had reported that Ms Maruri had just regained consciousness. She is, apparently, alive and well.
Ok, it’s April, Easter month, so we should be used to the idea of death and resurrection. But it’s beginning to go over the top a bit, isn’t it? In these desperate times, is the world trying to guarantee Biblical truths, to underwrite the authenticity of the New Testament?
The case of Elisa Granato is an even better example. Dr Granato – a thirty-two year old microbiologist – is the first volunteer guinea-pig for trials of the new coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford University. Risking her own physical well-being to save the lives of others – a Christ-like sacrifice if there ever was one (on her birthday, too). And indeed a few days after the trial started, Dr Granato’s death – due to complications from the vaccine – was announced in an article circulated online.
Fortunately Dr Granato’s resurrection was speedily accomplished when she tweeted “Nothing like waking up to a fake article on your death… I’m doing fine everyone.” She was backed up by the Department of Health and Social Care (“News circulating on social media that the first volunteer in a UK coronavirus vaccine trial has died is completely untrue”) and by the Oxford Vaccine Trial (“We are aware there have been and will be rumours and false reports about the progress of the trial. We urge people not to give these any credibility…”).
Then there’s the mysterious case of Kim Jong-un. Hardly Christ-like, true (his uncle machine-gunned to death, his half-brother assassinated with deadly poison?), but he’s a Messianic figure for the people of North Korea, nevertheless. He hasn’t been seen in public for almost three weeks now. State media reported his presence at a politburo meeting on April 11, but nothing has been reported of him since. He was surprisingly and inexplicably absent from the all-important Day of the Sun celebrations on April 15, marking the birthday of his grandfather Kim Il-sung, the founder of the 70-year old dynasty. Kim Jong-un’s pet project – the massive Wonsan-Kalma tourist complex – was due to be completed on the same day, but there was no mention of it in any official outlet. And a huge missile test went unreported in North Korea, which suggests that he’d been somehow unavailable to make political capital out of it. And he didn’t appear for ceremonies celebrating the founding of the North Korean army on its anniversary a week ago.
Rumours about his health were quick to circulate. There’s been concern about his poor physical state for years – he’s allegedly overweight and a heavy drinker and smoker. A South Korean newspaper, with contacts in the north and with defectors, reported that he’d suffered a heart attack while staying at the Wonsan seaside resort. Reuters, citing three sources “familiar with the situation”, reported that Beijing sent a team of eminent doctors, led by “a senior official from the Communist Party’s international liaison department”, to Wonsan to treat him.
Then rumours of his death began to circulate. Further reports, unconfirmed but attributed to “senior party sources in Beijing”, say that the Chinese team arrived too late to save him – emergency heart surgery undertaken by a North Korean doctor had already failed. It’s claimed that the terrified doctor bungled the insertion of a stent because his hands were shaking so much.
It does appear that the dictator’s entourage are indeed at Wonsan; US spy planes have apparently spotted his private and distinctive train sitting in the sidings of the railway station reserved for his palatial beachside retreat there. And his father Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Il-sung both died of heart-attacks. And it’s common for the death of a dictator to be hushed up until the question of succession has been settled – his father had been dead for two days before anyone knew anything about it. (On the question of succession, it’s interesting and perhaps significant that his powerful sister Kim Yo-jong has been noticeably strengthening her position even further in recent months). And there are reports of panic-buying of foreign goods in shops in Pyongyang – shops which are patronised by the country’s privileged elite. Do they know something that we don’t?
Nevertheless, the South Korean authorities haven’t spotted any other signs of unusual activity north of the border, and the Pentagon hasn’t detected any exceptional manoeuvres or deployments by the North Korean army. And it’s been pointed out that Kim Jong-un has disappeared before only to reappear again, as if back from the dead. He wasn’t seen for six weeks in 2014, before hobbling back into view with the aid of a walking-stick, having been laid low by an attack of gout. The presence of that train at Wonsan proves nothing – he’s known to have more than one such train, and they’re shuttled around the country to confuse the rest of the world about his whereabouts. And even if he has gone to Wonsan, it doesn’t mean he’s dead – indeed, it would be an ideal place for him to recover from illness (as claimed by South Korean media) or to self-isolate from the coronavirus. He’s still alive, insists a South Korean intelligence official known to Reuters. Albeit in a vegetative state following that bungled operation, according to the Japanese weekly magazine Shukan Gendai.
Something is clearly wrong – surely a dictatorship wouldn’t let such unsettling rumours flourish unless it couldn’t disprove them? (A report about Kim Jong-un’s message of thanks to construction workers which appeared in the North Korean party paper Rodong Sinmun earlier this week was a singularly unconvincing attempt to persuade the world that all is well.) Has there been a coup? Is Mr Kim simply locked down with his advisors as they thrash out a big policy decision, the announcement of which may surprise us almost as much as any other potential bombshell (an unfortunate choice of word, perhaps) which could eventually be made public?
We may never know the truth. North Korea is an exceptionally secretive and closed country, after all. And a dangerously unpredictable and nuclear-armed one at that, given to blood-curdling rhetoric and apocalyptic threats. As much as the USA, China, Russia and the rest of the world must loath (have loathed?) its maverick and intransigent dictator, it’s ironic to think that world leaders may now be dreading his demise because of the chaos and disaster which a succession battle or a regime change or any other kind of implosion of authority might precipitate. There may even come a time when they look back on the days of his rule with fond nostalgia, seeing them as relatively stable compared to what followed. Right at the moment they might even be praying that he undergoes as successful a resurrection as that accomplished by Alba Maruri of Ecuador and Elisa Granato of Oxford.