Kim Jong-un: speculation rife that North Korea's leader 'gravely' ill

South Korea has pushed back on reports that the leader of the DPRK underwent an urgent heart operation

Last week, almost all of North Korea’s leadership turned out to mark the most important event in the country’s calendar, the birthday of its late founder Kim Il-sung.

Notably absent was the founder’s grandson and current supreme leader Kim Jong-un. South Korean media reported that the ruler of the isolated authoritarian state is gravely ill following a heart operation.

Daily NK, an online media outlet run mostly by North Korean defectors, said Mr Kim had undergone a cardiovascular procedure earlier this month and was recovering at a villa in North Phyongan province.

“Excessive smoking, obesity, and fatigue were the direct causes of Kim’s urgent cardiovascular treatment,” it cited an unidentified source inside the country as saying.

Pyongyang has not made any comment on the report. But South Korea on Tuesday played down the reports even as speculation mounts over his continued absence.

CNN cited a US official saying that Washington is “monitoring intelligence” that Kim was in “grave danger after a surgery”. That report did not specify what the intelligence was.

FILE - In this undated file photo provided by the North Korean government on April 12, 2020, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects an air defense unit in western area, North Korea. The South Korean government is looking into reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is in fragile condition after surgery. Officials from South Korea’s Unification Ministry and National Intelligence Service couldn’t immediately confirm the reports citing an anonymous U.S. official who said Kim was in “grave danger.” Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. Korean language watermark on image as provided by source reads: "KCNA" which is the abbreviation for Korean Central News Agency. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)
An undated photo provided by the North Korean government on April 12, 2020 shows leader Kim Jong-un inspecting air defense units in western area. Korea News Service via AP

In a statement, a spokesman for the South’s presidential Blue House said: “We have nothing to confirm and no special movement has been detected inside North Korea as of now.”

And the South’s Yonhap news agency cited an unnamed government official saying that reports Mr Kim was seriously ill were “not true”.

Previous absences from the public eye on Mr Kim’s part have prompted speculation about his health.

In 2014, he dropped out of sight for nearly six weeks before reappearing with a cane. Days later, the South’s spy agency said he had undergone surgery to remove a cyst from his ankle.

“No-one knows what’s going on inside North Korea,” said Martyn Williams, who is affiliated with the 38 North research website.

“Kim Jong-il had been dead several days before it was announced and it took everyone by surprise,” he tweeted.

“Kim Jong-un has been ‘missing’ before and has always reappeared. That said, his absence this week was more notable.”

The North Korean leader has not made a public appearance since presiding over a meeting of the Workers’ Party politburo on April 11.

His powerful sister Kim Yo-jong was named as an alternate politburo member and the meeting called for stronger measures against the coronavirus pandemic.

Pyongyang has closed its borders and imposed tight restrictions to protect itself from the virus that emerged in neighbouring China and has since swept the world, and insists it has had no cases.

On April 12, the North’s official news state media KCNA reported that Mr Kim had inspected drills by fighter jets at an air defence unit.

There were no state media reports of any drills after the South said two days later that Pyongyang had launched a series of short-range cruise missiles.

But analysts have said his absence from the April 15 birthday commemorations suggested he could be looking to emphasise his own authority over his family’s legacy.

Some South Korean officials raised doubts about the credibility of the Daily NK sourcing.

Reporting from inside the isolated country is notoriously difficult, especially on anything to do with the North’s leadership, which is among its most closely guarded secrets.

Both the unification ministry – which handles inter-Korean relations – and the defence ministry declined to comment.

Moon Chung-in, the security adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, told AFP he had not heard anything about Mr Kim’s health.

Analysts also expressed caution.

Ahn Chan-il, a defector-turned-researcher based in Seoul, said heart surgery required sophisticated medical equipment “only accessible in facilities in Pyongyang”, and it was “unreasonable” to transport it elsewhere for an operation.

“Nothing is confirmed at this point, and it’s too early to make a conclusion about his condition,” he said.

Updated: April 21, 2020 11:06 AM


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