The World is Still Asking: Where Was Kim For The Last Three Weeks?

Published May 3rd, 2020 - 08:40 GMT
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has made his first public appearance since speculation about his health began last month, cutting the ribbon at the opening of a fertilizer factory, KCNA reported on May2. Brendan Smialowski / AFP
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has made his first public appearance since speculation about his health began last month, cutting the ribbon at the opening of a fertilizer factory, KCNA reported on May2. Brendan Smialowski / AFP
South Korean officials do not believe Kim Jong-un underwent surgical procedure

Officials in Seoul believe North Korean leader Kim Jong-un did not undergo surgery, it emerged today.

Speculation about the Supreme Leader's health mounded around the world after the head of the Hermit Kingdom had not been seen in public for nearly three weeks.

Yesterday Kim appeared at the opening of a fertiliser factory to quash rumours he had died.

Pictures from the event appeared to show the dictator had needle marks on his forearm and he appeared to use a golf buggy to get around. Kim had previously used a cart following leg surgery.

But a senior South Korean government official told reporters today that the presidential office does not believe the authoritarian leader underwent an operation, according to the Yonhap News Agency.

The news from South Korea came as the two neighbours exchanged gunfire along the border, just a day after Kim's reappearance.

Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said he believed the timing of the 'grey area' provocation shows it could been planned to show that Kim was still in charge of the North Korean military.

'Yesterday, Kim was trying to show he is perfectly healthy, and today, Kim is trying to mute all kinds of speculation that he may not have full control over the military,' Choi said.

'Rather than going all the way by firing missiles and supervising a missile launch, Kim could be reminding us, ''yes I'm healthy and I'm still in power''.'

North Korean troops fired multiple gunshots towards the South in the Demilitarized Zone dividing the peninsula early on Sunday, prompting South Korean forces to fire back.

Gunfire broke out between the two nations when North Korea fired a series of shots towards a guard post in South Korea that borders the North at 7.41am local time, the JCS said.

The South's Joint Chiefs of Staffs (JCS) in Seoul said in a statement today that the guard post was hit by several shots from the North. 

The rare exchange of gunfire comes a day after North Korean state media reported that leader Kim Jong-un had made his first public appearance in nearly three weeks following an absence that triggered intense speculation about his health and fears about the stability of the isolated nation. 

Reports around the world speculated if Kim Jong-un had died during a medical procedure. 

South Korea responded by firing two shots back towards North Korea, the JCS said.

The South is taking action to try to 'grasp the detailed situation', it said.

'We are taking actions via inter-Korean communication lines to grasp the detailed situation and to prevent any further incidents,' the JCS statement read.

'And we also maintain a necessary readiness posture.'  

It is not clear why the gunfire erupted, but no injuries have been reported on either side.

'Our military responded with two rounds of gunfire and a warning announcement,' the JCS said.

The South Korean military later said the North Korean gunshots were 'not deemed intentional', according to the Yonhap news agency. 

In a lengthy briefing held later on Sunday, an official at South Korea's JCS said the gunshots did not seem a planned provocation, as the area where it ocurred was farmland, but declined to provide a clear conclusion about the incident.

'In absence of vision [for the target] and in the fog, would there be an accurate provocation?' the official said.

The two neighbours regularly open fire on each other and technically remain in a constant state of war after the Korean War ended in a truce in 1953, but not a peace treaty.

Despite its name, the Demilitarized Zone is one of the most fortified places on earth, replete with minefields and barbed-wire fences.

Both sides have troops poised along the 155-mile border ready to open fire on the other side at any point.

Easing military tensions on their border was one of the agreements reached between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a summit in Pyongyang in September 2018.

But most of the deals have not been acted on by North Korea, with Pyongyang largely cutting off contact with Seoul.

North Korea's discussions with the United States over Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal are also at a standstill, despite three meetings between Kim and US President Donald Trump.

Increased tensions between the two nations comes as Kim Jong-un was seen for the first time in three weeks on Friday. 

Speculation concerning the controversial leader's health began to gain momentum after he failed to turn up at the celebration of his grandfather's birthday on April 13, one of the country's biggest calendar events. 

Rumors and reports grew that he had died.  

But North Korea's supreme leader then emerged alive, as he was pictured cutting the ribbon at the opening of a fertiliser factory Friday.

He 'attended the ceremony' at the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertiliser Factory on Friday and 'all the participants broke into thunderous cheers of 'hurrah!'' when he appeared, the Korean Central News Agency said. 

The dictator was seen smiling and talking to aides at the ceremony and also touring the plant, but the authenticity of the photos could not be verified.

The uncertainty around the peace process would have increased had Kim been incapacitated or dead as rumoured in recent weeks. 

He was accompanied by several senior North Korean officials including his younger sister Kim Yo Jong, Korean Central News Agency said.

There continues to be speculation over why he has not been seen in such a long time, including that he had complications after heart surgery or was suffering from the coronavirus. 

According to medical experts who viewed footage of the dictator's return, Kim Jong-un's wrist suggests he could have had heart surgery. 

US-funded NK News reported that marks on Kim's arms show he has had a 'cardiovascular procedure'. 

What appeared to be needle marks could be seen on his wrists while he rode in a golf cart that looked a lot like the one he used in 2014, when he returned to the public eye with a cane after some time away.

Kim has not been seen with marks on his wrists before. 

President Donald Trump celebrated the dictator's apparent return to the public eye in a social media post Saturday, stating he is glad to see him back in good health after rumors he had died.

The president retweeted pictures of Kim at the fertilizer factory and wrote: 'I, for one, am glad to see he is back, and well!' 

It is unclear whether the White House has authenticated the pictures released by North Korean state media. 

Before Kim's reappearance, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month that he remained hopeful a nuclear deal could be clinched with North Korea.

'Regardless of what transpires inside of North Korea with respect to their leadership, our mission remains the same - to deliver on that commitment that Chairman Kim made with President Trump...[the] verified denuclearisation of North Korea,' Pompeo told reporters.

'We are still hopeful that we'll find a path to negotiate that solution to get the outcome that is good for the American people, good for the North Korean people and for the whole world.'

Has Kim Jong-un had heart surgery? Medical experts say 'needle' marks on his arms in newly released pictures could hint at procedure

ByEmer Scully For Mailonline

Marks on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's wrist suggests he could have had heart surgery, say medical experts.

The despot made his first alleged public appearance for 20 days yesterday when he cut the ribbon at the opening of a fertiliser factory in Sunchon, according to state media.

Medical experts have assessed video footage of the visit and claim marks on Kim's arms show he has had a 'cardiovascular procedure', US-funded NK News reported. 

The dictator was seen smiling and talking to aides at the ceremony and also touring the plant, but the authenticity of the photos could not be verified.

He was accompanied by several senior North Korean officials including his younger sister Kim Yo Jong, Korean Central News Agency said.

What appeared to be needle marks could be seen on his wrists while he rode in a golf cart that looked a lot like the one he used in 2014, when he returned to the public eye with a cane after some time away. 

Asked about the KCNA report, US President Donald Trump said: 'I'd rather not comment on it yet. We'll have something to say about it at the appropriate time.' 

Speculation about Kim's health has been rife after he missed the birth anniversary celebrations of state founder Kim Il Sung on April 15.

The day is a major holiday in North Korea and Kim as leader usually pays a visit to the mausoleum where his grandfather lies in state.

He last made a public appearance on April 11 attending a meeting of the ruling Workers' Party politburo.

Kim has not been seen with marks on his wrists before.  

Following his absence from the anniversary, a South Korean news outlet specialising on the North reported Kim was recovering after undergoing a cardiovascular procedure.

A flurry of other unconfirmed reports about his condition and his whereabouts followed including from vice director of Hong Kong Satellite Television Shijian Xingzou who claimed he was dead. Officials in South Korea and the US were sceptical.

The former top US diplomat for East Asia Daniel Russel said the pieces of the puzzle of Kim's disappearance would take time to assemble.

His reappearance showed authoritative information about the well-being and whereabouts of a North Korean leader were very closely guarded, and rumours about him needed to be regarded with considerable skepticism, Russel said.

The rumours had, however, served to focus attention on North Korea's succession plan, which 'in a monarchical and cult-like dictatorship is filled with risk, and the absence of a designated adult heir compounds that risk many times over,' Russel said.

Earlier, a source familiar with US intelligence analyses and reporting said US agencies believed Kim 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. The State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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.

He said: '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.'

In his appearance at the fertiliser factory, Kim expressed satisfaction about the production system and said the plant made a significant contribution to the progress of the country's chemical industry and food production, KCNA said.

Memes surfaced across social media in the West today in response to the report that the dictator has been out and about.

One said 'Kim Jong-un with the best comeback of 2020', while another posted a picture comparing the dictator to the wrestler the Undertaker. A man wrote 'so Kim Jong-un is alive and well' above a picture of Spiderman looking unsure.

While another added 'North Korean state media release photo of Kim Jong-un' with a picture a man being held up by two others.

The news appears to fly in the face of a report earlier on Friday from a North Korean defector claiming he was '99 per cent sure' Kim was dead.

Ji Seong-ho claimed to South Korea's Yonhap news agency he had been 'told Kim died last weekend' after cardiovascular surgery.

The defector said Kim's sister Kim Yo-jong was in line to succeed her brother but said the secretive state was 'grappling with a complicated succession issue'. State-controlled media in North Korea had not provided any definitive proof Kim was alive.

But there was a sign of life earlier on Friday as Daily NK reported the regime had issued a directive signed by Kim himself, the first in two weeks.

Ji, a defector who was elected to the South's parliament earlier this year, is the latest to suggest Kim might have died after heart surgery.

'I've wondered how long he could have endured after cardiovascular surgery. I've been informed that Kim died last weekend,' he said.

'It is not 100 per cent certain, but I can say the possibility is 99 per cent. North Korea is believed to be grappling with a complicated succession issue.'

Pyongyang has never made any succession plans public, but experts say Kim's sister has been the most visible presence around the dictator in recent years.

She was named an alternate member of the ruling Workers' Party's powerful Central Committee Politburo last month.

North Korea is the world's most secretive country and reports about Kim and his family, including the suggestion he recently had heart surgery, are nearly impossible to verify.

But other defectors have cast doubt on whether such sensitive information would ever leak out from Kim's inner circle.

Some defectors say their relatives in North Korea did not know Kim had been missing from public view for three weeks.  

One said people had been talking about Kim's whereabouts in very private circles after he failed to appear at the ruling party showpiece on April 15.

Kim's unprecedented absence from the Day of the Sun ceremony honouring his grandfather prompted the major speculation about his welfare.

Defector Lee Soon-hee said: 'I talked to my sister and my niece this morning and they had no clue about these reports and rumours about Kim Jong Un's health.

'When I told them, they were so cautious about discussing it. North Koreans have a very limited knowledge of these things.' Lee defected to the South in 2009.

North Koreans are keenly aware they could face punishment for discussing the Kim family, said Sokeel Park, of Liberty in North Korea, a group that works with defectors.

He said: 'That doesn't mean people don't take that risk, some people do. But it's still a super sensitive issue. It's a little like the pope not showing up for Christmas,' he said of Kim's absence from the April 15 celebrations.

South Korean officials say they have not detected any 'unusual movements' north of the demilitarised zone.

The South's minister in charge of North Korean affairs said on Tuesday fear of coronavirus could have kept Kim away from the April 15 ceremony.

President Trump said yesterday: 'I understand what is going on, I cannot just talk about him right now, just hoping that everything will be fine. But I do understand the situation very well'.

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has said he was aware of reports on Kim's health and was paying close attention to developments.

Still, experts said it was strange North Korea had not quickly release a picture of a healthy-looking Kim if there was no truth to the rumours.

Official media has not provided any verifiable proof of life since April 11, other than reporting he had sent messages to North Korean workers and to South Africa's president Cyril Ramaphosa and the pictures of him in Sunchon.

Another defector-turned-politician, Thae Yong-ho, warned only a small handful of people would know the full story.

He also cautioned clues about Kim's whereabouts - such as an apparent sighting of his personal train in the city of Wonsan - could be deliberate diversion tactics.

Pyongyang officials know the train can be seen from satellites and have previously sent it around the country to confuse outsiders, Thae said.

The sighting of the train was followed by further satellite images from Wonsan showing boats often used by Kim and his entourage.

North Korea has never announced who would succeed Kim Jong Un in the event he is incapacitated and with no details known about his young children, analysts say his sister and loyalists could form a regency until a successor is old enough to take over.

Each change at the top in North Korea has raised the prospect of a leadership vacuum or collapse of the Kim dynasty, which has ruled the country since its founding in 1948.

So far, each of the three Kims to rule North Korea has defied expectations, holding on to power with an iron grip.

But under Kim Jong Un, North Korea's arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles has grown substantially, raising concerns over who would control them.

In the event of any leadership transition, Kim Jong Un's younger sister Kim Yo Jong is likely to play a central part.

In the past two years, Yo Jong has risen quickly through North Korea's leadership hierarchy, serving officially as a vice director of the Workers' Party's powerful Central Committee, but also unofficially as her brother's chief of staff.

Kim Yo Jong, who is believed to be 31, has a firm control of key party functions, setting herself to be the main source of power behind a collective leadership.

She has regularly been observed at her brother's side, leading South Korean Media to dub her the 'Ivanka Trump of North Korea'.

'Kim Yo Jong will be for the time being the main power base with control of the organisation and guidance department, the judiciary and public security,' said Cho Han-bum of the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government-funded think-tank in Seoul.

Still, relatively little is known of of Kim Yo Jong. The dictator's younger sibling has routinely kept a low profile, having only made her first public statement last month, in which she mocked South Korea as being a 'frightening dog barking', for opposing a live-fire military demonstration.

But sources say Yo Jong's work behind the scenes suggests she would rule with the same iron-fist as her predecessors, should she be announced leader, temporarily or otherwise.

Along with several other North Korean officials, Kim Yo Jong was blacklisted by the US Treasury Department for 'severe human rights abuses' in 2017.

She also incurred a reputation for her aggressive propaganda pushing, regarded a one of the main officials who worked to enact 'rigid censorship policies and conceals its inhumane and oppressive behavior'.

'Among the North's power elite, Kim Yo Jong has the highest chance to inherit power, and I think that possibility is more than 90 per cent,' an analyst said.

Yo Jong first began working in the ruling party in 2007, but in the last few years she has 'gotten a lot more serious' about the role she's playing, government consultant Michael Madden told the New Yorker.

'When you see footage of her on the receiving lines, she is smiling, a nice friendly young woman, but when she is out of those lines, the smile vanishes and she even looks like Kim Jong Il,' Madden remarked.

Should she be announced as ruler, Yo Jong would become North Korea's first female leader since her Grandfather Kim Il-Sung founded the nation in 1948. 

In the event of Kim Jong Un's death, party Elders Choe Ryong Hae and Pak Pong Ju would likely find themselves at Yo Jong's side, helping to weather any leadership storm.

Ryong Hae was announced as North Korea's nominal head of state last when he rose to become president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, following decades of service within the party for the ruing Kim family.

Choe and Pak Pong Ju, a fellow politburo member and former state premier who oversaw the North's push to introduce more free-market functions to revive its economy, are likely to be the figureheads leading a collective leadership, analysts say.

Unlikely to emerge as a major presence is Kim Jong Un's estranged older brother, Kim Jong Chol, who has not been a part of the country's leadership instead opting for a quite life away from politics playing music.

Though according to North Korea's former deputy ambassador in London, who has since defected to the South, Jong Chol does maintain ties with his siblings and could play a more public role in any contingency plans.

Kim Jong Un is believed to have three children with Ri Sol Ju, the youngest born in 2017, according to the South's National Intelligence Service.

The oldest is a 10-year-old son, meaning any of the three would need the assistance of their relatives or political guardians if they were to become a fourth-generation hereditary leader.

Kim Jong Il had been groomed for 20 years to lead the country, while Kim Jong Un had just over a year to prepare, due to his father's sudden death from a heart attack.

Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asian Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said: 'Kim Yo Jong is unlikely to take over the helm but could help build a caretaker regime as a power broker until the kids grow up, and Kim Jong Chol might return to help for a while.'

This is not the first time Kim has disappeared from the public eye. In 2014, Kim was not seen for 40 days, before he reemerged appearing to walk with a limp and using a cane, after he reportedly suffered from an ankle problem.

His father Kim Jong-il disappeared from view for months in 2008, prompting speculation that he had a stroke. A French doctor later confirmed the reports, and the then leader died three years later.

But North Korea's ruling elite have vanished from the spotlight before prompting rumors of their death only to re-emerge seemingly unscathed.

In 2015 it was claimed by a North Korean defector Kim ordered his own aunt to be killed by poison. The aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, re-appeared smiling in January.

A delegation led by a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party's International Liaison Department left Beijing for North Korea last month, two of the people said. The department is the main Chinese body dealing with neighbouring North Korea.

Daily NK, a Seoul-based website, reported earlier last month Kim was recovering after undergoing a cardiovascular procedure on April 12. It cited one unnamed source in North Korea.

South Korean government officials and a Chinese official with the Liaison Department challenged subsequent reports suggesting Kim was in grave danger after surgery. South Korean officials said they had detected no signs of unusual activity in North Korea.

North Korea is one of the world's most isolated and secretive countries, and the health of its leaders is treated as a matter of state security. Reuters has not been able to independently confirm any details on Kim's whereabouts or condition.

North Korea's state media last reported on Kim's whereabouts when he presided over a meeting on April 11. State media did not report he was in attendance at an event to mark the birthday of his grandfather - an important anniversary in North Korea.

Kim, believed to be 36, has disappeared from coverage in North Korean state media before. In 2014, he vanished for more than a month and North Korean state TV later showed him walking with a limp.

Speculation about his health has been fanned by his heavy smoking, apparent weight gain since taking power and family history of cardiovascular problems.

When Kim Jong Un's father Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke in 2008, South Korean media reported at the time that Chinese doctors were involved in his treatment along with French physicians.

Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping made the first state visit in 14 years by a Chinese leader to North Korea, an impoverished state that depends on Beijing for economic and diplomatic support.

China is North Korea's chief ally and the economic lifeline for a country hard-hit by U.N. sanctions, and has a keen interest in the stability of the country with which it shares a long, porous border.

Kim is a third-generation hereditary leader who came to power after his father Kim Jong Il died in 2011 from a heart attack. He has visited China four times since 2018.

Trump held unprecedented summits with Kim in 2018 and 2019 as part of a bid to persuade him to give up North Korea's nuclear arsenal.

'The North Korean version of Undertaker': Internet reacts to claims Kim Jong-un is alive after photos of dictator are released for the first time in 20 days following rumours he had died
ByDarren Boyle for MailOnline

Twitter users rejoiced following the return to public life of North Korean despot Kim Jong-un. 

Several reports from the hermit state suggested Kim, who is believed to be in his late 30s, could have undergone major surgery or even possibly died.  

He had not been seen in public since April 11 and missed the national celebrations for his grandfather and founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung on April 15. 

However, North Korea's state news agency KCNA released photographs of a smiling Kim inspecting a fertiliser plant outside Pyongyang. 

The report said Kim cut a ribbon as the crowd 'burst into thunderous cheers of 'hurrah!' for the Supreme Leader...'. 

Twitter users questioned the authenticity of the photographs, with memes ripped from The Simpsons and Weekend at Bernies.  

Kim was seen in photographs smiling and talking to aides at the ribbon-cutting ceremony and also touring the plant. The authenticity of the photos, published on the website of the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper, could not be verified.

Many in the large crowd of people, described as officials of the army, the ruling party and the community who worked on the project, were wearing face masks and standing some distance from the podium where Kim and his aides took part in the ceremony.

North Korea has not reported any cases of the coronavirus and has said it has been taking tough measures to prevent an outbreak. One reason for Kim's absence has been the suggestion he may have been taking precautions against coronavirus.

Kim was accompanied by senior North Korean officials, including his younger sister Kim Yo Jong and top aides vice-chairman Pak Pong Ju of the State Affairs Commission and cabinet premier Kim Jae Ryong, and KCNA said.

He last made a public appearance on April 11 attending a meeting of the ruling Workers' Party politburo.

Following his absence from the anniversary, a South Korean news outlet specialising on the North reported that Kim was recovering after undergoing a cardiovascular procedure. A flurry of other unconfirmed reports about his condition and his whereabouts followed.

Officials in South Korea and the United States expressed scepticism about the reports.

State TV footage on Saturday showed Kim's leg movements appearing stiff and jerky and one of the images showed a green golf cart in the background, similar to one he used in 2014 after a lengthy public absence.

This article has been adapted from its original source.

© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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