North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visits the city of Samjiyon, Ryanggang Province in this photo released by the Korea Central News Agency on Tuesday. (KCNA-Yonhap)
After not being seen in public for more than a month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reappeared in the state media Tuesday, visiting the city of Samjiyon near the border with China, where the leader’s signature construction project is underway.
The North’s Korea Central News Agency said Kim visited the northern alpine city in Ryanggang Province to inspect progress on the final and the “third stage” of the development project, which is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
The visit to Samjiyon was Kim’s first public appearance reported in state media following a 35-day hiatus, ending the second-longest break since he came to power in 2011. The last time Kim was in a public setting was on Oct. 11, when he delivered a speech at a rare defense exhibition in Pyongyang.
His prolonged break had stoked fresh speculation about his whereabouts and health. In a photo released by the state media, Kim, dressed in a long black leather coat, appears to have lost more weight. South Korea’s spy agency last month said the leader had recently lost about 20 kilograms, but remains healthy.
Kim’s choice of venue for his reemergence is no coincidence. Seoul officials say reporting on the success of the Samjiyon project appears to tout the leader’s economic performance as the year-end approaches and as this year marks Kim’s 10 years in office, according to a Seoul official.
“As this year marks the first year in its five-year economic development plan and with the year-end approaching, the North seeks to (promote) the performance of the first year of the plan,” a Unification Ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
The official also noted that the report could be to highlight the fact that significant results in regards to people’s livelihood were made during Kim’s decade rule.
Samjiyon is located at the foot of Paektusan, the symbolic mountain that Pyongyang claims as the birthplace of Kim’s late father Kim Jong-il and which is described as the sacred center of the country’s revolution.
Transforming rural Samjiyon into a “model cultured city” and what Pyongyang describes as “a socialist utopia” has been one of Kim’s pet projects since taking power. The massive redevelopment project began in 2013 with the building of new apartments, hotels, a ski resort and commercial, cultural and medical facilities. Pyongyang hoped to complete the three-stage construction by 2020 in time for the 75th anniversary of the ruling party’s foundation. But it missed the deadline due to international sanctions and a prolonged border closure amid the coronavirus pandemic.
At the site, Kim praised workers for their “lofty loyalty, strong will and sweat” to push ahead with the “huge” project, despite the “unfavorable environment,” according to the KCNA.
Kim stressed that the project proved the “iron will of our sate to achieve prosperity our own away and with our own efforts,” and that the Samjiyon construction project will serve to guide future rural development.