Kim Jong-Un
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Remember where you were when you first heard “Paul is dead?” Boomers easily recall the day their beloved mop-top Beatle was missing, declared dead and gone. It was a traumatic moment for many who saw the signs, found the clues and believed the hype. Paul McCartney had clearly passed away.

It was a déjà vu moment this week when international rumors took flight and premature reports came in declaring the near death of Kim Jong Un. North Korea’s dictatorial ruler and modern mop-top leader was said to have gone through a medical procedure that rendered him at death’s door. As of this writing, these rumors have not been confirmed. What is confirmed is that Kim Jong Un is no Paul McCartney.

In fact, Kim more likely resembles Fidel Castro.

Castro was regularly rumored to be dead. It became a featured meme. James Cason, who later became Coral Gables mayor, served as head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana between 2002 and 2005 and once said that Castro “must have died 20 times since the time I went to Cuba.”

Sensational rumors are started and popularly circulated for many reasons. Self-started rumors, for example, are often launched for publicity purposes, as with Morton Downey Jr. or Jussie Smollett.For the Beatles, McCartney’s rumored death proved a sales coup. The public mourning for him led to headlines, premature obituaries and huge record sales. Americans scoured albums and pictures to find clues — a barefoot Paul walking across Abbey Road or a cryptic Sgt. Pepper’s photo with Paul’s back turned. Songs played backward supposedly revealed “Paul is dead!”

Except he wasn’t.

Enter Kim Jong Un. Why on Earth would this rumor start?

Unlike rumors spread for self-promotion, those spread by others can be weaponized, meant to weaken a target or to test an adversary’s resilience and reactions. Kim’s leadership and hold on power are constantly being tested. This rumor-mongering may just be the latest installment.

It could be an attempt by the West—or Beijing—to smoke out Kim just to see where he is and if he’s willing to come forth and dispel the rumor. This allows adversaries the ability to calculate if and how he responds to foreign pressures. Does he remain out of the public eye? Or does he order and preside over a missile test launch? Each type of response gives the world a clue both to his personality and his grip on power.

The Kim’s-dead rumor also provides grist for any surviving and well-hidden North Korean opposition — weak as it may be — to step up and act. Credible rumors of a weakened or dead leader provide pretext and cover for any potential Pyongyang political factions or military leaders to consider a coup d’etat.

U.S. intelligence agencies and defense personnel look for troop movements, changed postures, heightened defense preparedness, broadcast messaging, chatter within diplomatic channels, runs on goods and altered daily worker patterns.

Weaponized rumors also are a psychological game played by adversarial nations to test the resilience and response mechanisms of other countries. In nations that have unreliable, usually state-run, news organizations, rumors carry greater weight and credibility than denials. People living in dictatorships rely heavily on rumors and whispered news for their information. No wonder — listening to the regularly broadcast staccatoed exhortations of North Korean TV newscasters praising the “Dear Respected Comrade Leader” is enough to turn a die-hard Socialist worker into a fearful rumor consumer.

At times, when a political leader is presumed critically ill or dead, there is an opportunity to take the temperature of a population towards its leadership. When the wishful thinking and targeted rumors of Castro’s death were being floated, there were many who stood anxiously in the Miami and Havana wings, waiting to spring into action and overthrow his regime. In the end, however, Castro outlived most of his island-based opponents. Kim may be unhealthy—he may even actually be taking his last breaths—but at 36 years old, he is younger, seemingly physically fitter and likely to outlive President Trump.

Soviet leaders were often dead and rumored to be alive. The only way the world was ever assured that people like Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev were really dead was when Moscow’s radio stations stopped their regularly scheduled programming and put Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” into heavy rotation.

Authoritarian states may be uniquely vulnerable to weaponized rumors, but developed, democratic countries with free and independent media and radio stations are also susceptible. Thanks, Facebook!

Neither Sir Paul McCartney nor Kim Jong Un seem to be dead quite yet. But one person who definitely is long gone is the great American author and journalist Mark Twain. During his lifetime, Twain was also rumored to be dead. When contacted by an English reporter for the New York Journal, he famously responded that, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).