World

Falling approval ratings for Donald Trump. Fiji uses pandemic to argue for crackdown on free speech. Growing calls to impeach Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. Mysterious absence of Kim Jong-un raises speculation on successor. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Kim Jong-un’s absence prompts successor speculation

Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, in 2019.
Credit: AP

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

United States: On Monday, the White House announced that Donald Trump’s Covid-19 press conference at 5pm had been cancelled. This followed growing concerns among Republicans about the president’s rambling daily appearances, which are believed to be the cause of his falling approval ratings.

But, two hours after the cancellation, the White House revealed the press conference would go ahead. Apparently, Trump was angry about reports suggesting he had been silenced by his staff. And so he appeared for his standard repertoire of self-congratulation and put-downs of his rivals, though, at 55 minutes, it was relatively short.

Trump is trailing his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, in battleground states such as Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania, and the margins have been growing. Despite Trump’s push to quickly resume economic activity, polls show overwhelming support for social distancing measures, with more than 80 per cent of Americans supporting the restrictions or saying they should be tightened. Older voters, in particular, are believed to be abandoning support for Trump. By Thursday, more than 60,000 Americans had died due to the outbreak.

At his appearance on Monday, Trump resumed his increasingly strident attacks on China. He said the White House was conducting “serious investigations” into China’s handling of the outbreak and claimed he planned to sue Beijing for damages. “We haven’t determined the final amount yet,” he said. “It’s very substantial.” Trump’s campaign has also begun attacking Biden. or “#BeijingBiden”, for being too close to China. Biden’s campaign has responded by attacking Trump for threatening China but “never follow[ing] through”. The common thread – that China must be confronted – is emerging as a major theme of the election campaign.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Fiji: Since seizing power in Fiji in a military coup in 2006, Frank Bainimarama, a former military chief, has gradually been leading the country back towards democracy. But the imposition of a strict lockdown due to the Covid-19 outbreak has raised concerns the country is regressing and that the pandemic is providing an excuse to violate human rights.

Jone Kalouniwai, a Fijian brigadier-general, came under criticism this week after arguing that the health emergency justified a crackdown on free speech.

“In times of such national emergency such as this global pandemic or war against Covid-19, our leaders have good reasons to stifle criticism of their policies by curtailing freedom of speech and freedom of the press,” he wrote in the Fiji Sun.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued a statement condemning the comments, saying free speech was vital to combating the spread of the virus. “These comments recall the worst time of the Fijian military dictatorship from 2006 to 2014,” said Daniel Bastard from RSF.

In a separate incident, an opposition MP, Pio Tikoduadua, was recently arrested after raising concerns on Facebook about the alleged assault of a 32-year-old man by a group of police officers. Three opposition parties released a joint statement accusing the government of using the coronavirus emergency to stifle dissent. The parties urged the health minister to take control of the crisis and to ensure that state authorities “do not get distracted” and remain focused on public health measures.

As of Wednesday, Fiji, which has about 935,000 residents, had 18 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The country last week began easing restrictions, but still has a curfew from 10pm to 5am that is being enforced by the police and military. Hundreds of people have been arrested.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Brazil: Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right president of Brazil, has sparked protests over his dismissal of the health risks of Covid-19 and his insistence people should end their social isolation and return to work. He has attacked state governors for imposing lockdowns and sacked the health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who had called for social distancing measures.

But Bolsonaro’s presidency is now in crisis over a separate controversy. The supreme court this week ordered an inquiry into allegations that he fired the federal police chief over concerns about a criminal investigation into his sons.

According to the newspaper Folha de São Paulo, Bolsonaro’s 37-year-old son, Carlos Bolsonaro, was involved in a criminal racket that spread fake news on social media to intimidate and threaten authorities. Another son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, was reportedly also involved. A third son, Flávio Bolsonaro, has been investigated over allegations involving money laundering and corruption.

Bolsonaro’s sacking of the police chief prompted the resignation of the high-profile justice minister, Sérgio Moro, who gave a press conference saying Bolsonaro had wanted to install a police chief who would provide him with information and intelligence reports.

Bolsonaro, a 65-year-old former paratrooper, has now appointed a new police chief, Alexandre Ramagem. A photograph in Brazilian media showed Ramagem alongside Carlos Bolsonaro at a New Year’s Day party last year.

There are growing calls to impeach the president but he has a fervent base of supporters, some of whom have called for a return to military dictatorship.

At a pro-dictatorship rally last month, Bolsonaro stepped onto a truck to encourage the protesters. He coughed repeatedly. More than 20 members of a delegation he took to meet Trump in March later tested positive for coronavirus. Bolsonaro was tested but refused to reveal the results. A court this week ordered him to release them.

SPOTLIGHT: Kim Jong-un

North Korea: Kim Jong-un leads one of the world’s few states with an advanced nuclear weapons program, yet basic details about him – such as his age and how many children he has – remain unknown. Last week, a new mystery emerged: is he dead or alive?

Speculation about Kim’s condition arose after he failed to appear at celebrations on April 15 to mark the anniversary of his late grandfather’s birth and was not seen during another national holiday on April 25. Reports emerged that he was gravely ill and may have had heart surgery, or could be dead. Then a train was spotted at his coastal villa, suggesting he may be recuperating, holidaying or taking refuge from a Covid-19 outbreak. China reportedly sent a team of officials, including doctors, to advise on Kim’s condition. Trump said he knows of Kim’s status but “can’t talk about it”.

In 2014, Kim, believed to be 36 years old, disappeared for more than a month and re-emerged with a limp. But the latest unexplained disappearance showed just how little is known about him or the activities inside his state.

Analysts have used satellite images to guess at his whereabouts, though North Korean authorities are aware that this occurs and sometimes try to mislead watchers. North Korea’s state media, though unreliable, is another source of information – it has given no indication of any recent internal changes.

Rumours about Kim’s death have led to debate about his possible successor. The most likely candidate is his sister Kim Yo-jong, who has become increasingly prominent since Kim became supreme leader in 2011. But that leads to another unknown – whether the male-dominated elite would accept a woman leader. Anna Fifield, who wrote a book about Kim, commented in The Washington Post: “I can’t see how Kim Yo-jong could become the leader. But I also can’t see how she could not … There’s no one else.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2020 as "MIA Kim Jong-un brings sister in focus".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.