North Korean state media on Wednesday made no mention of leader Kim Jong Un’s health or whereabouts, a day after intense international speculation over his health was sparked by media reports he was gravely ill after a cardiovascular procedure.
North Korean media presented a business-as-usual image, carrying routine reporting of Kim’s achievements and publishing some of his older, or undated, comments on issues like the economy.
South Korean and Chinese officials and sources familiar with U.S. intelligence have cast doubt on South Korean and U.S. media reports that he was seriously sick, while the White House said it was closely monitoring the matter.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who held unprecedented summits with Kim in 2018 and 2019 in an attempt to persuade him to give up his nuclear weapons, said the reports had not been confirmed and he did not put much credence in them.
“We’ll see how he does,” Trump told a White House news conference on Tuesday. “We don’t know if the reports are true.”
Speculation about Kim’s health first arose due to his absence from the anniversary of the birthday of North Korea’s founding father and Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.
On Wednesday, the main headlines from the North’s state news agency, KCNA, included pieces on sports equipment, mulberry picking, and a meeting in Bangladesh to study North Korea’s “juche” or self-reliance ideology.
The official Rodong Sinmun newspaper carried older or undated remarks attributed to Kim in articles about the economy, the textile industry, city development, and other topics.
As usual Kim’s name was plastered all over the newspaper, but there were no reports on his whereabouts.
A spokesman for South Korea’s presidential Blue House said they could not confirm Kim’s whereabouts, or whether he had undergone surgery. South Korea had detected no unusual activity in North Korea, the spokesman said.
“Extended silence is unusual”
Daily NK, a Seoul-based website, reported late on Monday that Kim, who is believed to be about 36, was hospitalized on April 12, hours before the cardiovascular procedure.
The report’s English-language version carried a correction on Tuesday to say the report was based on a single unnamed source in North Korea, not multiple as it earlier stated.
It said his health had deteriorated since August due to heavy smoking, obesity and overwork, and he was now receiving treatment at a villa in the Mount Myohyang resort north of the capital Pyongyang.
“It does look like something is going on, based on the repeated absences of last week,” said Chad O’Carroll, CEO of the Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.
“A health issue seems to be the most logical explanation for all this, but whether or not it’s cardiac-related seems to be too early to tell.”
On Tuesday, CNN reported an unidentified U.S. official saying the United States was “monitoring intelligence” that Kim was in grave danger after surgery.
However, two South Korean government officials rejected the CNN report. China, North Korea’s only major ally, also dismissed the reports.
Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, told Fox News the White House was monitoring the reports “very closely”.
“There’s lots of conjecture going around,” a senior Trump administration official said on condition of anonymity late on Tuesday when asked if there was confirmation of the reports.
North Korea experts have cautioned that hard facts about Kim’s condition are elusive but said his unprecedented absence from major celebrations for his grandfather’s birthday last week signals that something may have gone awry.
Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean deputy ambassador to Britain who defected to South Korea in 2016, said state media’s extended silence is unusual because it had in the past been quick to dispel questions about the status of its leadership.
“Every time there is controversy about (Kim), North Korea would take action within days to show he is alive and well,” he said in a statement.
His absence from the April 15 anniversary ceremony, in particular, was “unprecedented”, Thae said.
Who could come next?
Kim is a third-generation hereditary leader who rules North Korea with an iron fist, coming to power after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in 2011 from a heart attack.
Reporting from inside North Korea is notoriously difficult, especially on its leadership. There have been past false reports regarding its leaders, but the fact Kim has no clear successor means any instability could present a major international risk.
Trump said he had asked Kim about succession in the past but declined to elaborate.
“The basic assumption would be maybe it would be someone in the family,” said O’Brien. “But, again, it’s too early to talk about that because we just don’t know what condition Chairman Kim is in.”
With no details known about Kim’s young children, analysts said Kim’s sister and other loyalists could form a regency until a successor is old enough to take over.
In recent years, Kim has launched a diplomatic offensive to promote himself as a world leader, holding three meetings with Trump, four with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and five with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“I don’t recall any other time we were in such a good relationship with North Korea,” said Lee Eun-ji, a 28-year-old nurse in Seoul.
“If his health really has deteriorated and he becomes critically ill, then I wonder if his replacement would even try to make those efforts … I worry his successor could be a warmonger.”
Kim has sought to have international sanctions against his country eased, but has refused to dismantle his nuclear weapons program, a steadfast demand of the United States.