Amid mounting speculation about the health status of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Seoul officials expressed confidence that “nothing is unusual” in the reclusive regime, labeling the rampant rumors as an “infodemic.”
“(The government) has enough information-gathering capabilities to say confidently that there are no unusual signs (in North Korea),” Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul told a plenary session of the National Assembly’s foreign affairs and unification committee.
He was responding to lawmakers who had cast doubt on those capabilities, recalling the death of Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011 and pointing out that Seoul remained unaware of the event until the North’s state media broke the news two days later.
The minister expressed regret that despite the Seoul government’s firm denials, ceaseless reports and rumors about Kim Jong-un’s health were proliferating. He called the phenomenon an “infodemic,” a term coined by the World Health Organization and referring to the false and misleading reports that have been spreading online in connection with the new coronavirus.
Specifically, Minister Kim said media reports saying that North’s leader Kim received medical treatment after cardiovascular surgery at the Hyangsan Medical Center outside of Pyongyang, by doctors from Pyongyang’s Kim Man Yu Hospital, is “fake news,” based on unconfirmed information.
“This is hard to accept logically. ...The Hyangsan Medical Center is like a clinic, a facility incapable of conducting surgery or medical treatments,” he said.
“We need to take the COVID-19 situation into account,” the minister said, adding that a number of mass gatherings and events in the regime had been scaled down or canceled due to novel coronavirus fears.
Kim Jong-un’s whereabouts and his health status have been the subject of heavy speculation in recent weeks, with some reports indicating the leader could be dead or in a vegetative state. The conjecture started when Kim skipped an event at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on April 15 to commemorate the birth of the North’s founding father, the leader’s late grandfather Kim Il-sung, an important event he had attended every year since assuming power in 2011.
Kim Jong-un was last seen on April 11 in Pyongyang, when he presided over a politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party.
The minister added that the North Korean leader had been out of the public eye at other times this year, for 21 days in one case and 19 days in another.
“North Korean media outlets have been reporting on Chairman Kim’s work recently, suggesting that he has been carrying out state affairs normally,” he said.
He was referring to several reports from the North in the past two weeks, mostly about Kim Jong-un sending diplomatic letters, expressing thanks to citizens and issuing other undated statements, without accompanying photos of the leader.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, who was present at the parliamentary session, echoed the unification minister’s position.
“Despite the series of media reports, no unusual signs have been detected inside North Korea,” she told lawmakers. “We are closely monitoring the North’s external policy trends, given the recent reshuffle of its diplomatic lineup on the occasion of the Supreme People’s Assembly meeting,” she said.
Kang also added that North Korea appears to be making diligent efforts to fight the coronavirus.
“While the North maintains it has no coronavirus cases, it has been focusing on expanding its health and medical capabilities,” she said, citing reports on the groundbreaking ceremony for Pyongyang General Hospital and the North’s extended health budget.
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump hinted that he knows something about Kim’s health status and whereabouts, but later mentioned “nobody knows where he is.”
“Kim Jong-un? I can’t tell you exactly. Yes, I do have a very good idea, but I can’t talk about it now. I just wish him well,” he said during a White House press conference Monday. “I hope he’s fine. I do know how he’s doing, relatively speaking. We will see. You will probably be hearing in the not-too-distant future.”
By Ahn Sung-mi (firstname.lastname@example.org