Kim Jong-un's absence from public life may be due to fear of contracting coronavirus, South Korean official says
Officials caution against reports suggesting North Korean leader is gravely ill
Speculation about the North Korean leader’s whereabouts and health is rife after he did not attend state ceremonies marking the 15 April birth anniversary of his grandfather and founder of the county, Kim II Sung.
Kim Yeon-chul, South Korea’s unification minister, said it was plausible Mr Kim decided against attending the events because of Covid-19 and the stringent steps his government has taken to prevent an outbreak.
“It is true that he had never missed the anniversary for Kim Il Sung’s birthday since he took power, but many anniversary events including celebrations and a banquet had been cancelled because of coronavirus concerns,” the minister said.
“I don’t think that’s particularly unusual given the current situation [of the pandemic].”
He also noted that there were at least two instances since mid-January when Mr Kim had not been seen for nearly 20 days.
Official media in North Korea has not reported on Mr Kim’s whereabouts since 11 April, when he presided over a meeting, but there have been near-daily reports of him sending letters and diplomatic messages.
The country has cancelled some large events and imposed a border lockdown and quarantine measures in an effort to stop the virus spreading.
Officials in South Korea have so far cautioned against reports suggesting the North Korean leader may be ill and said they had not detected any unusual movements from the country.
On Saturday, Reuters reported that China had sent a team, including medical experts, to North Korea to advise on Mr Kim, citing three people familiar with the situation. However it was unclear what, if anything, was wrong with him.
Kim Yeon-chul has described reports about a Chinese medical team travelling to the country and articles claiming Mr Kim had undergone a heart procedure as “fake news”.
Donald Trump said on Monday he had a good idea how Mr Kim was doing and hoped he was fine without elaborating on what he knew, while Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, said he was paying close attention to developments.
With no obvious successor in the country, any change of leadership in North Korea would raise concerns about the potential for a period of instability which could impact other North Asian countries and the US.
Chad O’Carroll, the CEO of Korea Risk Group, suggested it would be damaging for Mr Kim if it was revealed that he was hiding out due to fears about Covid-19.
This would “puncture a hole in the state media narrative of how this crisis has been perfectly managed”, Mr O’Carroll said.
“If he is merely trying to avoid infection, it should theoretically be very easy to release photos or videos of a healthy-looking Kim,” he added.
A source familiar with US intelligence reporting told Reuters it was possible Mr Kim had disappeared from public view to avoid the virus and he could be staying in the coastal resort area of Wonsan.
However, with no clear evidence to support either conclusion, US agencies are still considering the possibility that Mr Kim might be ill, the source said.
Additional reporting by Reuters