A South Korean official has said that Kim Jong-un’s absence from the public eye suggests “he has not been working as normal”, amid mounting speculation that the North Korean leader has fallen ill.

Although the South Korean government has dismissed rumours regarding Mr Kim’s health, insisting on Sunday that he is “alive and well”, questions persist.

Yoon Sang-hyun, chairman of the foreign and unification committee in South Korea’s National Assembly, told a gathering of experts on Monday the leader’s prolonged absence indicated “he has not been working as normal”.

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“There has not been any report showing he’s making policy decisions as usual since 11 April, which leads us to assume that he is either sick or being isolated because of coronavirus concerns,” Mr Yoon said.

Speculation over Mr Kim’s health began after he failed to make a public appearance at a key state holiday on 15 April, and has since remained out of sight.

Reuters claimed that China had sent a team of medical experts to advise on Mr Kim last Thursday, days after a report by the Seoul-based Daily NK newspaper cited an anonymous source who claimed the leader had undergone heart surgery.

South Korea media has also reported that the leader, believed to be 36-years-old, may be in isolation to avoid exposure to the coronavirus – though North Korea says it has no confirmed cases of Covid-19.

Addressing the fervent speculation, a senior foreign policy adviser to South Korean president Moon Jae-in said there was nothing “suspicious” about Mr Kim’s recent movements.

“Our government position is firm,” Chung-in Moon told Fox News. “Kim Jong Un is alive and well. He has been staying in the Wonsan area since 13 April. No suspicious movements have so far been detected.”

At a closed door forum on Sunday, South Korea’s Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who oversees engagement with the North, said the government has the intelligence capabilities to say with confidence that there were no indications of anything unusual.

Mr Chung-in’s suggestion that the North Korean leader may be staying out of Pyongyang was lent further credence on Saturday by satellite images published by 38 North, a website specialising in North Korea studies.

The pictures showed a train likely belonging to Mr Kim parked at his Wonsan compound on the country’s east coast since at least 21 April. It had not been present on 15 April, the website’s researchers said.

“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,” they added.

Mr Kim’s health is of crucial importance due to concern that the serious illness or death of a leader venerated by many North Koreans could cause instability in the impoverished, nuclear-armed country.

While North Korea makes it virtually impossible for outsiders to determine what is happening at senior levels within the country, South Korea’s main spy agency also has a mixed record on confirming developments north of the border.

Few outsiders knew of Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011 until it was reported by North Korea’s state media two days later.

On Sunday, North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported that Mr Kim had sent his gratitude to workers who contributed to the construction of the city of Samjiyon.

Continuing speculation over Mr Kim’s healths comes as the South Korean government said that it will seek “realistic and practical ways” for cooperation with North Korea upon the second anniversary of the Panmunjom Declaration.

The declaration, which outlined efforts to end the Korean conflict and move towards denuclearisation of the peninsula, was signed by Mr Moon and Mr Kim during their first summit on 27 April 2018, at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom.

Additional reporting by agencies

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