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Kim Jong Un hasn’t been seen in public for over two weeks. Reports that he is seriously ill — or even dead — continue to proliferate. And intelligence agencies across the globe are struggling to get any verifiable information out of the hermit kingdom.
And yet, South Korean officials say Kim Jong Un is “alive and well” and staying at the coastal resort of Wonsan, where Kim’s family has a compound that includes nine guesthouses, a shooting range, and a dock for Kim’s mega yacht.
The claim was made by Moon Chung In, the top foreign policy adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae In during an interview with CNN on Sunday.
"Our government position is firm," Moon said. “Kim Jong Un is alive and well. He has been staying in the Wonsan area since April 13. No suspicious movements have so far been detected.”
On Monday, South Korea’s minister for unification backed up the claim, saying an extensive intelligence assessment has detected “no unusual movements” in North Korea. Kim Yeon Chul added that South Korea could now "confidently say" that nothing unusual was taking place in the North.
The suspicion that Kim is staying in Wonsan was given added weight by the 38North website, which closely tracks activity inside North Korea, when it published satellite images showing Kim’s train parked in the eastern city since at least April 21.
“The train’s presence does not prove the whereabouts of the North Korean leader or indicate anything about his health, but it does lend weight to reports that Kim is staying at an elite area on the country’s eastern coast,” it said.
Geng Shuang, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, said on Monday that his government has no additional information to offer, saying it is unclear where the reports of Kim’s ill health came from.
The first reports about Kim’s medical situation emerged last week from the NK Daily, a website run by North Korean defectors. The report said Kim had undergone heart surgery at the Hyangsan Medical Center on April 12 — a day after he was last seen in public. U.S. media outlets subsequently cited U.S. intelligence sources saying Kim was struggling to recover from the surgery.
However, on Monday, Moon poured cold water on the report, saying that “Hyangsan Hospital does not have the facility to perform [such] surgery.”
Over the weekend there were further claims in China and Japan that Kim was either dead or in a vegetative state.
Chinese journalist Shijian Xingzou, who is the niece of one of the country’s foreign ministers, said a “very solid source” told her the North Korean leader had died. She broadcast the claim to her 15 million followers on Weibo over the weekend.
North Korea’s state-run media, however, has ignored the mounting speculation about Kim’s health. Instead, they have continued to report that he is still working as head of the government, sending and receiving letters and notes.
The ninth and latest such letter he has sent since last being seen in public was sent on Monday, according to the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun.
"Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has sent his appreciation to the workers who devoted themselves to building the Wonsan-Kalma tourist zone," the newspaper reported.
Rumors about Kim’s ill health have been circulating for a long time and experts believe that if Kim were recovering well from his surgery, then state-run media would be saying something about it.
“What we can say for sure is that something is wrong. He is seriously over-weight and is a heavy smoker and has previously been forced to take leave based on medical problems,” Colin Alexander, a senior lecturer in political communications at Nottingham Trent University, told VICE News. “So if he was recovering well from surgery then there would likely be some announcement to quell any fears.”
Cover: People watch a TV screen showing a news program reporting about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with a file image at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, April 21, 2020. The South Korean government is looking into unconfirmed reports saying North Korean leader Kim is in fragile condition after surgery. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)