China poised to strike after Kim vanishes
What a difference two weeks makes.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has gone from "gravely ill" to "perfectly fine" to "vegetative state" during the fortnight since he was last seen, but the truth is we're all just speculating.
The 36-year-old went missing from public view on April 11 having presided over a ruling party meeting on coronavirus prevention.
Curiously, the Supreme Leader missed one of the most significant days on the hermit kingdom's calendar - the birthday celebration for his late grandfather Kim Il-sung - which he has attended without fail every year since taking power in 2011.
State media continues to play down reports of Kim's incapacitation. They report he is engaged in non-public activities but keeping in touch with allies including Syria, Cuba and South Africa.
But the world is watching - and no leader is watching more closely than President Xi Jinping. Because no country stands to benefit from Kim's demise more than China.
China has for years engaged in a game of cat and mouse with Pyongyang.
Mr Xi knows North Korea holds the key to expanding China's dominance over Asia but Mr Kim has never extended the hand of friendship.
Michael Auslin wrote for Foreign Policy today that China is poised to "make a power move" as the mystery surrounding Kim's disappearance continues.
"This is the most dangerous moment for the three-generation Kim regime in decades," he wrote.
"Kim's apparent medical crisis offers Beijing the first real opportunity in decades to strengthen its hand over Pyongyang.
"The opportunity to bind North Korea more tightly to China and maintain it as a buffer state facing US allies South Korea and Japan would be a geopolitical gift to XI."
While Mr Kim's absence is cause for alarm to some, is it fitting with a pattern of secrecy familiar to those who have studied North Korea's history.
In 1986, Kim Il-sung - a longstanding enemy of the South Korean people - was reported dead.
The reports began circulating on November 16 when South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo published a short story by its Tokyo correspondent who reported rumours in Japan that Kim Il-sung had died.
Things took a strange turn the next day when South Korea's military spokesman announced that the North Koreans used loudspeakers on the mine-strewn border to announce that he was shot to death.
Kim Il-sung's supposed assassination took up seven pages of the newspaper on November 17 but the circus ended abruptly when he appeared alive and well at an airport in Pyongyang the following day.
Kim Jong-il's early demise was equally overblown. The famously-reclusive father of Kim Jong-un was rumoured to have been killed when two trains carrying fuel collided at a North Korean train station in 2004.
He was later the subject of rumours that he had succumbed to a stroke. The stories, which ran frequently throughout 2008, forced South Korea's financial regulator to investigate whether they were being spread deliberately to manipulate stock markets.
His sister, Kim Kyong-hui, has had her own share of premature reports about her death. CNN on May 2015 cited a North Korean defector to report that Kim Jong-un had her poisoned to death.
The 73-year-old made her first public appearance in about six years in January, sitting near her nephew during a concert.
Kim Jong-un has previously vanished only to reappear.
In 2014, Mr Kim disappeared from public eye for nearly six weeks before reappearing with a cane.
South Korea's spy agency said he had a cyst removed from his ankle.
Some are speculating that his current absence is due to coronavirus concerns, despite North Korea reporting zero cases.
Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who oversees North Korea engagement, said: "I don't think that's particularly unusual given the current situation."
Writing for Foreign Policy, Auslin points out even if Mr Kim returns, suggestions that his health is in decline will follow him for years.
"Kim is only 36 years old, but has hardly been the picture of good health. Obese, often photographed smoking cigarettes, and likely to enjoy the same sybaritic lifestyle of his father, he has been a prime candidate for a health crisis.
"Even if Kim reappears tomorrow, the questions over his health and the regime's cohesion will certainly make the Chinese Communist Party consider if it might be an opportune time to move in."
Originally published as China poised after Kim vanishes