Although it turned out to be a historic year for Cuba — with the US "normalizing" diplomatic relations with the country, effectively ending half a century of isolationist policy — it was ultimately North Korea's dictator's footwear, which is named after the Caribbean island country, that was at the center of one of the most captivating and bizarre stories of 2014.
In the early fall, Kim Jong-un disappeared from public view for more than a month. After the portly 31-year-old dictator appeared at a concert with his wife on September 3, he vanished from public view until October 14, when state media showed him inspecting a new building and hobbling along with a cane.
Earlier in the summer, Kim walked with a pronounced limp when he appeared at a ceremony commemorating the death of his grandfather. When he missed a meeting of the Supreme People's Assembly — the first time he failed to preside over the rubber stamp parliament since his father's 2011 death. However, he was seen that day on state media in a taped propaganda video that again showed him limping. The narrator said Kim was experiencing "some discomfort" — which was as much explanation or acknowledgement the secretive country ever offered about Kim's situation or location at the time.
For the rest of the world, no theory explaining the reason behind Kim's absence was too outlandish. A British tabloid suggested he suffered from gout — a type of arthritis that affected other men in his family — caused by eating too much imported cheese. The South Korean press listed a litany of possible illnesses, including high blood pressure related to his heavy smoking habit. But the best of the theories had to do with Kim's Cuban heels.
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According to a report from South Korea's Chosun Ilbo — a paper with a notoriously anti-North Korean bias — Kim underwent surgery after injuring both of his ankles "during a grueling tour of military bases and factories in Cuban heels."
Cuban heels, in case you were wondering, are a type of high-heeled men's boot. These aren't platforms or stilettos, mind you, but a relatively modest heel similar to what you might find on a pair of cowboy boots. Pulp's Jarvis Cocker is reportedly fond of them, according to a Guardian article that referred to the "high-kicking trotters" as a "man-trend" back in 2011.
To be clear, nobody knows for sure exactly what happened to Kim's ankles, or even if that's the part of his body that was injured. But multiple outlets reported that Kim underwent ankle surgery in late September, and several reliable sources suggested to VICE News that the purpose of the prolonged public absence was to avoid showing the dictator in a wheelchair in public.
With the "marshall" — Kim's official rank in the Korean Workers' Party — missing from the public scene, speculation abounded about the stability of the North Korean regime. VICE News spoke with Jang Jin-sung, a high-ranking defector, who said Kim is no longer in control, and that a shadowy group of officials from the country's Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) actually pulls the strings in the Hermit Kingdom, and are propping up Kim as a figurehead. John Everard, a former British ambassador to North Korea agreed, writing that "a silent takeover" by the OGD may have occurred.
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While some experts disputed those assessments, many agree that it's wrong to think Kim runs the show in the North Korea all by himself — key aides, advisors, and family members influence decisions and shape policy in the country. Kim may have followed in the high-heeled footsteps of his father, but his power is not quite so absolute.
Wobbly heels weren't the only problem in Pyongyang in 2014. The UN made historic moves to push the regime to improve its human rights record, with only China's veto power over the UN Security Council standing in the way of a referral to the International Criminal Court. But even relations with China — which props up and protects North Korea — showed signs of souring. An influential retired Chinese general publicly grumbled recently about cleaning up the country's messes "too many times," and suggested that government collapse is "just a matter of time."
Still, there were occasional glimmers of hope. North Korea released several American prisoners, and also sent top officials on a diplomatic sojourn to South Korea to "continue inter-Korean dialogue," perhaps setting the stage for improved relations between the two countries in 2015.
Though mere baby steps, these moves hint at the possibility that North Korea could perhaps one day end its status as a pariah state. After all, Cuba totally made normalized diplomacy in-style this year.
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton