Fears were growing for Kim Jong-un’s health today after a US official said the dictator could be in ‘grave danger’ after heart surgery – although South Korea has played down the reports.
Washington is monitoring intelligence that Kim is in a critical condition after his operation in North Korea, CNN quoted an unnamed US official as saying.
Kim, 36, was last seen at a government meeting on April 11, and was mysteriously absent from the celebration of his late grandfather Kim Il-Sung’s birthday on April 15.
Daily NK, an outlet run mostly by North Korean defectors, said Kim had undergone a cardiovascular procedure and was recovering at a villa in North Phyongan province.
It is unclear what would happen next if fears that Kim is ‘incapacitated or worse’ prove correct, but his sister Kim Yo-jong is among the senior politicians who could be in line to take control.
South Korea has today played down the fears over Kim’s health, saying that ‘no special movement has been detected inside North Korea’.
The South’s Yonhap news agency cited an unnamed government official saying that reports Kim was seriously ill were ‘not true’.
The North has imposed even tighter restrictions than usual because of the coronavirus pandemic – although it claims to have no cases.
South Korea’s presidential Blue House said: ‘We have no information to confirm regarding rumours about Chairman Kim Jong-un’s health issue that have been reported by some media outlets.
‘Also, no unusual developments have been detected inside North Korea.’
The Blue House later said Kim was believed to be staying at an unspecified location outside of Pyongyang with some of his close confidants.
A different US official, speaking to the Associated Press, said the White House was already aware of fears about Kim’s health before the latest reports surfaced on Monday night.
The official said the US had information that Kim may have undergone surgery and that complications may have rendered him ‘incapacitated or worse’.
But they stressed that the US had nothing to confirm whether the surgery had taken place or that any complications had occurred.
‘We just don’t know,’ said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The White House and State Department had no comment.
Daily NK, citing unidentified sources inside the isolated state, said Kim was recovering at a villa in the Mount Kumgang resort county of Hyangsan on the east coast after getting the procedure on April 12 at a hospital there.
Kim’s health has deteriorated in recent months due to heavy smoking, obesity and overwork, the Daily NK report said.
‘My understanding is that he had been struggling (with cardiovascular problems) since last August but it worsened after repeated visits to Mount Paektu,’ a source was quoted as saying, referring to the country’s sacred mountain.
The dictator’s health fears come after reports that North Korean authorities had admitted in public lectures that coronavirus was spreading in the country, contradicting the regime’s claims that there are no cases.
There was no indication that Kim had contracted the deadly respiratory disease, also known as COVID-19.
The Unification Ministry, which deals with inter-Korean affairs, said it couldn’t confirm another report by Daily NK, which cited anonymous sources to report that Kim was recovering from heart surgery in the capital Pyongyang and that his condition was improving.
Losing the dictator would likely result in a power struggle since Kim has not specifically named a successor.
Among those who are seen as likely candidates who may try to take the top leadership position are Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong.
She was named as an alternate member of the politburo at the April 11 meeting where Kim was last seen in public, and has represented the North Korean government in dealings with the South.
Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea said Kim Yo-jong is already exercising significant influence within the government.
However, it is thought more likely that a top party leader would take over from Kim.
Given that two of the three members of the Politburo Standing Committee are older, its third member, Chairman of the Organization and Guidance Department Choe Ryong Hae, is seen as a likely candidate, reports NKNews.
Upon the sudden death of Kim Jong-Un, formal rules and regulations in the system will likely play a role in deciding who will replace him.
If the leadership is split on a candidate, there may be a formal vote by the Central Committee.
A session of the Supreme People’s Assembly also could be convened to elect a head of state.
However, those votes would likely be formalities after the real decision was made elsewhere, possibly fuelling a power struggle.
Speculation about Kim’s health was first raised after he missed the celebration of his late grandfather and state founder Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15.
Kim failed to attend the annual Day of the Sun ceremony for the first time, sparking speculation about his health amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The celebration and holiday to mark the birth of his grandfather is deeply significant and Kim Jong-Un has not missed it since taking power in 2011.
Neither Kim nor his sister attended the ceremony at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, despite many of his senior officials appearing at the wreath laying.
Kim was pictured presiding over the Workers’ Party politburo meeting on April 11. On April 12, the North’s official news state media KCNA reported that Kim had inspected drills by fighter jets at an air defence unit.
State media reported Kim sent greetings to Syrian President Bashar Assad last week and a ‘birthday spread’ to a North Korean woman who turned 100 on Monday, although he was not seen in public.
In 2014, Kim dropped out of sight for nearly six weeks before reappearing with a cane. Days later, the South’s spy agency said he had undergone surgery to remove a cyst from his ankle.
‘No-one knows what’s going on inside North Korea,’ said Martyn Williams, who is affiliated with the 38 North research website.
‘Kim Jong Il had been dead several days before it was announced and it took everyone by surprise,’ he tweeted.
‘Kim Jong-un has been ‘missing’ before, and has always reappeared. That said, his absence this week was more notable.’
But political analysts believe his conspicuous absence on Wednesday could point towards a political message Kim wants to send, that he wants to step away from the ‘cult of personality’ surrounding the ruling dynasty.
It also comes after a massive reshuffle of his inner circle on Saturday, in which a third of his leadership council were given their marching orders.
His sister, believed to be in her thirties, was also reinstated in her role as propaganda chief after being booted out over last year’s bungled talks with Donald Trump.
‘Kim Jong-Un wants to break away from the past, as well as the North’s traditional cult of personality,’ said Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector and researcher in Seoul.
‘His message is that Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung’s times are now over,’ he told AFP.
‘He wants to come across and brand himself as a leader who is modern and competent, rather than a descendant of his predecessors.
‘And he wants to gradually tone down the idolisation of the two late leaders as it goes against his agenda to brand the North as a ‘normal state’.’
Alternatively, Kim may have been advised to stay away from public gatherings because of coronavirus, despite Pyongyang’s claims that it has zero cases of Covid-19. There have been major outbreaks in neighbouring South Korea and China.
Although his age does not put him in a high-risk category, it is feared that his heavy drinking, smoking and obesity would put the 36-year-old at grave risk if he were to catch coronavirus.
Kim has been highly active in recent weeks and has been pictured out inspecting his military, sometimes with officers wearing face masks, while he does not.
Kim was a relative unknown to the West when he ascended to power replacing his father, Kim Jong-il.
His older half-brother Kim Jong-nam had once been seen as the likely successor, but fell out of favour and was later assassinated in Malaysia in 2017.
The ruling party’s claim to legitimacy has its roots in Kim Il Sung’s fight against Korea’s Japanese colonisers and for years the North’s official propaganda has promoted Kim Jong-Un’s resemblance to his grandfather, in appearance, manner, and even handwriting.
Under Kim, experts say research shows that North Korea has not stopped developing nuclear weapons despite ‘denuclearization’ talks with the US.
North Korea could have built up to 40 nuclear weapons by the end of 2019 – a dozen more than Kim Jong-un had the same time the year before, researchers claim.
Donald Trump met Kim to discuss the possibility of giving up his nukes in Vietnam in February of last year, but talks stalled after North Korea demanded immediate relief from US sanctions in return for only partial steps toward disarmament.
By year’s end, Kim announced his country’s self-imposed moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles was over.