Seoul – North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has made his first public appearance in nearly three weeks, state media reported Saturday, following intense speculation that the leader of the nuclear-armed nation was seriously ill or possibly dead.
The North reported that Kim had attended the opening of a fertilizer factory and released pictures it said showed the leader cutting a ribbon at the ceremony on Friday in Sunchon, north of Pyongyang, although the appearance could not be verified.
Rumors about Kim’s health have been swirling since his conspicuous no-show at April 15 celebrations for the birthday of his grandfather, the North’s founder — the most important day in the country’s political calendar.
His absence triggered a series of fevered rumors and unconfirmed reports over his condition, while the United States and South Korea insisted they had no information to believe any of the conjecture was true.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry reacted to Saturday’s report by saying “groundless” speculation about Kim had caused “unnecessary confusion,” calling for more careful consideration in future.
Kim’s sudden death would have left Pyongyang facing an unplanned succession for the first time in its history and raised unanswered questions over who would succeed him and take over the North’s nuclear arsenal.
The Korean Central News Agency said that onlookers “broke into thunderous cheers of ‘hurrah!'” when Kim appeared.
The pictures released by the Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed Kim in his trademark black suit, smiling broadly as he looked around the factory.
He was flanked by senior officials — including his sister and close adviser Kim Yo Jong — and showed no outward signs of ill health.
As with previous pictures released by the North during the global coronavirus pandemic, Kim was not wearing a mask, unlike the hundreds of workers cheering for him and releasing balloons.
Analysts said Kim could not appear in public wearing a mask as it would make him appear vulnerable to the North Korean people.
The North has insisted that it has not seen a single case of coronavirus, although experts say it is unlikely.
Kim’s repeated appearances without a mask had led some to speculate that he may have caught the virus. One reason for Kim’s absence has been the suggestion he may have been taking precautions against catching it.
South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who oversees engagement with Pyongyang, said it was plausible Kim was absent as a precaution over the coronavirus pandemic, in view of the stringent steps taken to head off an outbreak in the country.
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,” Kazianis said after the KCNA report.
Reporting from inside the isolated North is notoriously difficult, especially on matters relating to its leadership, which is among its most closely guarded secrets.
The North Korean leader had not made a public appearance since presiding over a Workers’ Party of Korea politburo meeting on April 11, and the following day state media reported that he had inspected fighter jets.
Daily NK, an online media outlet run mostly by North Korean defectors, had reported that Kim was undergoing treatment after a cardiovascular procedure last month.
Citing an unidentified source inside the country, it said Kim — who is in his mid-30s — had needed urgent treatment due to heavy smoking, obesity and fatigue.
Soon afterward, CNN reported that Washington was “monitoring intelligence” that Kim was in “grave danger” after undergoing surgery, quoting an anonymous U.S. official.
Officials in Seoul had consistently downplayed the reports and a presidential security adviser said that Kim was “alive and well” and staying in the eastern resort town of Wonsan.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul said Kim’s disappearance had highlighted that the world was “largely unprepared for instability in North Korea.”
“Washington, Seoul and Tokyo need tighter coordination on contingency plans,” he said.
Rachel Lee, a former U.S. government North Korea analyst, said that the past weeks had also shown the “insatiable appetite for news about the North Korean leadership.”
She highlighted the “potential regional and international risks that come with Kim Jong Un’s health” while lamenting the “poor analysis of North Korea that is based on impressions and speculation, not hard data.”
U.S. President Donald Trump suggested earlier this week that Washington believed Kim to be alive and well and declined to immediately comment on Kim’s apparent re-emergence.
Asked Friday about the KCNA report on Kim, Trump was mum.
“I’d rather not comment on it yet. We’ll have something to say about it at the appropriate time,” he told reporters at the White House.
Earlier, a source familiar with U.S. intelligence analyses and reporting said that U.S. agencies believed that Kim Jong Un was not ill and remained very much in power.
“We think he’s still in charge,” the source said on condition of anonymity.
The source could not immediately confirm the KCNA report.
Trump and Kim have met three times, although talks on the North’s nuclear capabilities have long been stalled with no sign of them resuming.
Previous absences from the public eye on Kim’s part have also prompted speculation about his health.
Kim’s father and predecessor had been dead for two days before anyone outside the innermost circles of North Korean leadership was any the wiser.
In 2014, Kim Jong Un 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.
Kim’s reported appearance at a fertilizer plant is the latest signal to domestic audiences that he is watching out for their economic and food well-being, but nuclear analysts believe it is likely a part of the North’s covert uranium enrichment efforts.
There is strong evidence of the Sunchon phosphate fertilizer plant’s involvement in uranium extraction, pointing to its dual-use, according to a recent report by James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California.
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