Kim Jong-un: Where has the North Korean leader been for the past few weeks?

Leader makes first public appearance since 11 April, amid rumours of avoiding coronavirus

Kate Ng
Saturday 02 May 2020 13:09
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First appearance of Kim Jong-un in public since 11 April released amid rumours of poor health

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s health has been under speculation for several weeks, following reports that he was in critical condition after undergoing a cardiovascular procedure in mid-April.

He was last seen in public on 11 April, until Saturday, when state news agency KCNA said he attended the completion of a fertiliser plant north of Pyongyang.

Prior to his appearance at the plant, South Korean officials said it was likely he had been avoiding exposure to coronavirus, although North Korea insists there are zero cases of the virus in the country.

However, the country has cancelled some large events and imposed a border lockdown and quarantine measures in an effort to stop the virus from spreading.

In photographs published by the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper, Mr Kim was seen at the ribbon-cutting ceremony and touring the plant, located in the city of Sunchon. KCNA reported those who attended the event “burst into thunderous cheers of ‘hurrah!’ for the Supreme Leader”.

Neither the report nor the photographs could be verified, said Reuters.

Concerns about Mr Kim’s health began circling after he was notably absent from birth anniversary celebrations of his grandfather and state founder Kim Il Sung on 15 April. Prior to this year, Mr Kim would always visit his grandfather’s mausoleum on the day, which is also a public holiday in the country.

His absence prompted reports by Seoul-based newspaper Daily NK which speculated the North Korean leader was recovering from heart surgery, brought on by “obesity, prolific smoking habits and ‘overwork’”.

The news was swiftly followed by a CNN report, in which a US official claimed Mr Kim was in “grave danger” and the US was monitoring intelligence “very closely”.

But South Korea’s presidential office dismissed the reports of Mr Kim’s poor health, telling NK News: “Concerning the rumour on North Korean chairman Kim Jong Un’s health irregularities that was reported by some media outlets, we have nothing to confirm. No special trends have been detected inside North Korea.”

Mr Kim’s appearance at the plant on Saturday was broadcast on state TV, with footage showing his leg movements to be stiff and jerky. A green golf cart was seen in the background in one of the images, similar to one he used in 2014 after a month-long absence.

Nam Seong-wook, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University told Reuters there were desks and chairs prepared at the occasion, which “seemed a bit rare”, and added Mr Kim may have “some physical conditions that prevent him from standing too long”.

Being unable to stand for long periods of time could have contributed to Mr Kim’s absence from the anniversary event in April, said Mr Nam, where he would have had to stand for at least half an hour.

Chad O’Carrol, chief executive of Korea Risk Group, cautioned against dismissing rumours of Mr Kim’s ill health because of his public appearance on Friday.

He tweeted: “Just because Kim reappeared in public, it does *not* mean he has been free of recent health problems. State TV referenced health issues while he was out of sight for the longest period on record in 2014.

“Keep an eye out for similar references – as well as visual indicators,” he added.

South Korean and US officials said Mr Kim may have been staying in the eastern coastal resort of Wonsan, after satellite images showing a train and boats usually used by the premier and his entourage surfaced.

Former top US diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, said the pieces of the puzzle of Kim's disappearance would take time to assemble.

His reappearance showed that authoritative information about the well-being and whereabouts of a North Korean leader were very closely guarded, and rumours about him needed to be regarded with considerable scepticism, Mr Russel said.

The rumours had, however, served to focus attention on North Korea's succession plan, which "in a monarchical and cult-like dictatorship is filled with risk, and the absence of a designated adult heir compounds that risk many times over," he added.

Kim Yeon-chul, South Korea’s unification minister who oversees engagement with Pyongyang, said it was plausible Mr Kim had been absent from the public eye as a precaution over the coronavirus pandemic.

The minister said: “It’s true that he had never missed the anniversary for Kim Il Sung’s birthday since he took power, but many anniversary events including celebrations and a banquet had been cancelled because of coronavirus concerns.

“I don’t think that’s particularly unusual given the current situation.”

Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest think tank in Washington, said this still could be the case.

“The most likely explanation for Kim’s absence is with North Korea declaring the coronavirus pandemic an existential threat… he most likely was taking steps to ensure his health or may have been impacted in some way personally by the virus,” said Mr Kazianis.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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