Kim Jong-un is perfectly fine, sources say

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Kim Jong-un is perfectly fine, sources say

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is fine and conducting regular activities at a provincial villa, a South Korean government source told the JoongAng Ilbo Tuesday.

“I am aware Chairman Kim is staying at a villa in Kangwon Province and has been conducting undisclosed visits to nearby locations,” said the official. “Kim is also believed to have been at a location in Munchon, near Wonsan, where the North Korean military launched cruise missiles on April 14.”

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Kim Jong-un

If true, the official’s remarks contradict a report by CNN Tuesday that alleged Kim was in “grave danger” after undergoing a cardiovascular operation. A U.S. official “with direct knowledge” said American intelligence was monitoring news about Kim’s health, according to CNN.

CNN’s bombshell report, which fueled international speculation and sent stocks tumbling in South Korea Tuesday, appeared to back up claims by a South Korean online periodical from Monday that said Kim had undergone heart surgery at a special facility near Mount Myohyang on April 12 as a result of his obesity, smoking habits and overwork.

The outlet, Daily NK, which is run by defectors from the North, cited an anonymous source.

When asked about the dictator’s supposed failing health on Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters that he didn’t know whether Kim was ill.

“I can only say this, I wish him well,” Trump said.

White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said the Trump administration was “watching reports closely” in spite of the dearth of information coming from North Korea.

South Korea’s government tried to more actively discourage the speculative reports.

Blue House spokesman Kang Min-Seok on Tuesday told reporters that there were no signs that suggested Kim’s health was failing. Another presidential official added that Kim appeared to be working as usual at a provincial location with close aides.

On Wednesday the Blue House repeated that there was no evidence to suggest Kim was sick, and that he appeared to be working as usual with close officials near Wonsan.

The head of the South Korean National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee, Rep. Kim Min-ki of the ruling Democratic Party, told reporters that Seoul’s spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, had found no signs that Kim was ailing.

South Korean intelligence officials believe Kim is likely staying at one of his special estates near Wonsan, which he has frequented regularly after rising to power. A top Blue House official also denied that Kim was likely to be near Mount Myohyang, which houses a retreat where Kim’s grandfather and father used to spend their summers.

Kim Jong-un’s failure to pay respects at the mausoleum of his grandfather, the regime’s founder Kim Il Sung, on the latter’s birthday on April 15 was the main reason behind the rumors about his health.

But one source from South Korea’s intelligence said the fact that Kim’s younger sister - Kim Yo-jong - and close assistant Jo Yong-won also did not take part in the public tribute to Kim Il Sung showed the dictator was conducting regular activities outside the capital of Pyongyang.

“First Vice Director Kim [Yo-jong] and Vice Director [of the Organization and Guidance Department] Jo are figures who follow Chairman Kim like shadows when he conducts field visits,” the source said. “We believe they were also absent from the tribute ceremony at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on April 15 because they were with Chairman Kim at a provincial location.”

This year was the first time since Kim Jong-un’s rise to power in 2011 that he did not partake in a memorial ceremony for Kim Il Sung at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun mausoleum. The country marked Kim Il Sung’s birthday, referred to as the Day of the Sun, in a subdued manner this year owing largely to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kim has not been seen in public since April 11. Another rumor that emerged from his absence alleged that Kim was in self-quarantine over fears of coronavirus infection after a Supreme People’s Assembly convention was held on April 12, where deputies from all across the country’s provinces gathered in Pyongyang.

South Korean conservative opposition figures also added fuel to the rumors about Kim’s health. Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun, who leads the National Assembly’s committee for foreign affairs and unification, claimed Pyongyang was in lockdown as a result of some “strange signs” coming from around Kim. Ji Seong-ho, a defector recently elected as a proportional representative, went as far as to say Kim was beyond recovery and that a “regency system” has taken power in the North.

Many experts in Seoul, however, say there is little substance to such claims. Kim Joon-hyung, head of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said on a radio program Wednesday that it was impossible for information on Kim Jong-un’s health to leak out in such a secretive country within days of his supposed sickness.

“Since April 11 to now, [Kim Jong-un] has not been seen in the public eye, but there have been testimonials that he was present at various undisclosed ceremonies in the provinces until the last weekend,” Kim Joon-hyung said.

BY JEONG YONG-SOO, SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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