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Spy agency denies Kim Jong-un’s illness, surgery

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (KCNA-Yonhap)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is not seriously ill, nor did he undergo heart surgery during his recent absence from the public eye, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers Wednesday.

“At least, it is judged that Kim did not receive surgery or a medical procedure related to his heart,” ruling Democratic Party of Korea Rep. Kim Byung-kee told reporters after a closed-door parliamentary briefing with the National Intelligence Service. “(We were also told that) while he was not shown in public he was administering the state affairs as usual.”

The NIS reported that the North Korean leader had appeared in public 17 times this year so far, the fewest since he assumed power in 2011. The figure represents a fall of 66 percent in comparison to 50 during the same period last year. The intelligence agency sees this as largely due to Kim’s focus on domestic affairs and to the novel coronavirus pandemic, which minimized public activities, the lawmaker explained. 

“It appears that the reason Kim chose to attend (an event) at a fertilizer plant in Sunchon as he was resuming activities after 20 days, indicates his emphasis to resolve the food issues and inject confidence on ‘self-reliance,’” the NIS was quoted as saying.

Conjecture about Kim’s health became rampant after he missed an event to mark the country’s most important holiday, the April 15 birthday celebration of his late grandfather Kim Il-sung, the North’s founding father, for the first time since he assumed power in 2011.

His rare absence prompted a whirlwind of rumors, including reports that the North’s leader was dead or in a vegetative state after botched cardiovascular surgery.

After a three-week-hiatus, Kim appeared at an opening ceremony for a fertilizer plant in Sunchon, north of the capital, Pyongyang, quashing the widespread health rumors.

Despite his return, speculation about Kim’s health has not stopped, with some raising the possibility that he underwent other medical procedures. But the NIS said Kim had no heart problems, citing experts who say that even a minor procedure would require four to five weeks of rehabilitation.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the NIS also did not rule out a virus outbreak in North Korea, despite the country insisting it is virus-free.

“While Pyongyang claims it has zero infections, considering active people-to-people exchange with China before the border closure in January, we cannot exclude the possibility of an outbreak in the North,” the NIS said.

But due to prolonged border closures, the North’s economic difficulties are much worse than usual, influenced by higher prices for seasonings, sugars and imported products and an unfavorable US dollar exchange rate. Pyongyang residents were seen lining up at markets and department stores, stocking up on daily necessities.

The agency added that it had not detected any unusual signs suggesting that the North had resumed operating the Yongbyon nuclear plant since it ceased doing so in late 2018.

“There are no special movements detected in the Punggye-ri nuclear test site or the Tongchang-ri missile launch site,” it added.

The NIS also did not report anything noteworthy in regards to reports that the North is nearing completion of a new intercontinental ballistic missile facility, or about the recent gunfire exchange between the North and South across the Demilitarized Zone.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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