North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reappeared at an opening ceremony for a fertilizer plant in Sunchon, north of the capital, Pyongyang on Friday. (KCNA-Yonhap)
US President Donald Trump said he was “glad” about the reemergence of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and that he appeared to be healthy, after weeks of global speculation that Kim was gravely ill or dead.
“I, for one, am glad to see he is back, and well,” said Trump on Twitter on Saturday (US time), after Kim’s surprise appearance at a public event for the first time in three weeks.
On speculation that the North Korean leader had undergone cardiovascular surgery during the hiatus or earlier, Cheong Wa Dae on Sunday denied the claim, adding Kim did not even go through a relatively moderate medical procedure.
“There are grounds to judge (Kim) had not undergone surgery, but we cannot reveal it,” a senior presidential official said in condition of anonymity.
The North’s state media outlet the Korea Central News Agency on Saturday released reports of Kim attending an opening ceremony for a fertilizer plant in Sunchon, north of the capital Pyongyang, Friday. He was there with other senior officials including his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, whom many observers see as her brother’s heir apparent in case of emergency.
In photos and videos unveiled by the KCNA, Kim, wearing a black Mao suit, smiled broadly, strolled around the factory, cut a huge red ribbon with scissors handed to him by his sister and even smoked, quashing the widespread health rumors.
The report added that the crowds “broke into thunderous cheers of ‘hurrah’ for the Supreme Leader.”
Kim’s reemergence underlines how difficult it is to crack what’s really happening inside the reclusive regime, especially with regard to its leadership, and how easy it is for outsiders to circulate unsubstantiated reports.
His appearance, however, did not offer the slightest clue to the reason behind his unexplained three-week absence after presiding over a Politburo meeting April 11. Conjecture about Kim’s health became rampant after he missed an event to mark the country’s most important holiday, the April 15 birthday celebration for his late grandfather Kim Il-sung, the North’s founding father, for the first time since he assumed power in 2011.
His rare absence prompted a whirlwind of rumors, including reports that the North’s leader was dead or in a vegetative state after botched cardiovascular surgery. The Seoul government insisted there was “nothing unusual” happening inside North Korea.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry reacted to Kim’s reappearance on Saturday by saying “groundless” speculation about North Korea had caused “various unnecessary economic, security and societal confusion and costs,” and called for more careful consideration in regard to information about North Korea.
But speculation about Kim’s health has not stopped despite his return, and the KCNA’s brief footage showed Kim walking with a stiff gait and a green golf cart in the background, similar to one seen in 2014 after the North’s leader returned with a cane after a six-week absence. At the time, Seoul’s National Intelligence Service said Kim had had a cyst removed from his ankle.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at Seoul’s Sejong Institute, said the video clip of Kim suggests he still has some health issues.
“Kim generally looks healthy, but considering he is walking with a slight limp, his leg could have been in more serious condition on April 15,” he said.
Former North Korean diplomat and lawmaker-elect Thae Yong-ho also raised questions about Kim’s health, while admitting that his earlier projection -- that Kim “cannot stand up by himself or walk properly” -- was wrong.
Some also suggested Kim had fled Pyongyang and stayed at a beach resort in Wonsan out of concern about the coronavirus, after becoming aware in mid-April, that his subordinates suffered from fever, according to the Washington Post, citing unidentified sources.
While more than 3.42 million coronavirus infections and 244,000 deaths have been reported around the world, North Korea has insisted it is free of the virus, a claim that has been disputed by experts.
By Ahn Sung-mi (firstname.lastname@example.org