North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, resurfaced in public view on Friday, the North’s state news media reported on Saturday, controverting three weeks of rumours and unconfirmed news reports that he was in grave danger after undergoing heart surgery.
He appeared at a ceremony at a factory in the city of Sunchon, the North’s state news agency said, later releasing photos from the event. The report could not immediately be independently confirmed.
Kim, 36, had last appeared publicly on April 11. Speculation about his health — and about who would take over the hermetic, nuclear-armed country should he become incapacitated or die — began swirling after Kim missed the state celebrations of his country’s biggest holiday on April 15. On that day, the North marks the birthday of his grandfather Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder.
Rumours subsequently went into overdrive, claiming that Mr. Kim was “in grave danger,” in a “vegetative state” after botched heart-valve surgery, or in quarantine after contracting Covid-19. Other reports said that China had sent doctors to Pyongyang to save him.
After its initial report on Saturday, the North Korean news agency released photos showing a smiling Kim applauding, cutting a ribbon and standing with his hands behind his back at a new fertiliser factory.
“All the participants again burst into thunderous cheers of ‘hurrah’,” the news agency said, taking its characteristically fulsome tone for coverage of the leader. It said that Kim “warmly acknowledged the builders and masses raising thunderous cheers” and went on to tour the factory, accompanied by senior officials from the ruling Workers’ Party, including his only sister, Kim Yo-jong.
Although no outside media was apparently allowed to witness the ceremony, the report by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency followed a familiar pattern. State media typically reports Mr. Kim’s public appearances a day after they take place, carrying photos from the scene as well.
The South Korean government did not immediately comment on the report, but it has pushed back against the recent speculation that Kim was in poor health. Its unification minister, Kim Yeon-chul, had called the reports
“fake news”, saying that South Korea could say “confidently” that there was no evidence to confirm the rumours.
Amid the reports, North Korea had continued to send out letters and gifts to foreign leaders and domestic workers under Kim’s name. But until Saturday, it had gone weeks without reporting any public appearances by its leader or responding to the speculation about his health, and its silence fuelled the rumour mill.
As recently as Friday, Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector who recently won a seat in the South Korean parliament, told reporters that he was “99 per cent sure” that Kim had died last weekend.
The weeks of rumours showed how “unprepared” the outside world remains “for a potential political crisis caused by something like the sudden, unexpected death of the dictator in a country bristling with dozens of nuclear weapons,” said Danny Russel, vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute.
“We got a glimpse of the danger of loose nukes and worse if the death of Kim Jong-un had unleashed a destabilising power struggle” in the North, where Kim had no designated adult heir in place, Russel said by email.
Russel had dealt with North Korea as a National Security Council director at the White House.
He said the past few weeks showed that “authoritative information about the North Korean supreme leader’s well-being and whereabouts is very closely guarded, and, therefore, dramatic rumours about his health and behaviour need to be regarded with considerable scepticism.”
Featured Image Credit: In this Friday, May 1, 2020, photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, cuts a tape, watched by his sister Kim Yo Jong, during his visit to a fertilizer factory in Sunchon, South Pyongan province, near Pyongyang, North Korea. ((Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)
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