By Andrés Sánchez Braun |
Seoul, May 2 (efe-epa).- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has appeared in public for the first time in three weeks, apparently to dispel speculation about possible health problems, including rumors of his death.
State television broadcast images of Kim attending a ceremony to mark the inauguration of a fertilizer plant in Sunchon, a city in the east-central part of the country, and state media covered the news on Saturday, a day after the event.
Official news agency KNCA published a report of the inauguration with several pictures of the leader moving around without any help, dressed in a Mao-style black suit.
Kim reportedly visited various areas of the plant that the government constructed in less than two years, according to satellite imagery.
His sister Kim Yo-jon, the vice president of the central committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea Pak Pong-ju and Premier Kim Jae-ryong, accompanied the leader on Friday.
Kim expressed “satisfaction about the wonderful creation” that would help in developing the country’s chemical industry, KCNA said.
This was the first public appearance of Kim, 36, since Apr. 11, when he chaired a meeting of the political bureau of the WPK.
His prolonged absence, which coincided with several important events he was expected to attend, gave rise to rumors that the North Korean leader had suffered a health crisis.
The speculation was also fueled by the state media reporting that during his last public event, Kim named his sister as a member of the powerful WPK political bureau, a move interpreted by some commentators as a succession plan.
While Pyongyang’s state-run media have continued to report on actions by the leader, such as the sending of diplomatic letters to foreign governments and messages of appreciation directed at workers, there have been no images of Kim in three weeks.
Given the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic and the traditional secretiveness of the North Korean government, Kim’s disappearance was accompanied by anonymously sourced stories in foreign media suggesting that he was gravely ill.
Daily NK, a Seoul-based online publication that boasts of having an extensive network of informants in the North, said that Kim had been taken to Hyangsan, northeast of Pyongyang, to undergo heart surgery.
Just Thursday, Taiwan’s intelligence chief had affirmed that Kim Jong-un had been unwell.
Some sensationalist outlets went so far as to assert that Kim was dead, and even on Friday, South Korean lawmaker Ji Seong-ho, a defector from the North, said he was “99 percent sure” that Kim had died, citing his contacts in the neighboring country.
The South Korean government, however, had repeatedly expressed skepticism about those accounts and said that Kim’s absence was more likely due to a decision by Pyongyang to reduce the scale of public events in the context of containing the coronavirus.
Although North Korea has officially not reported any cases of COVID-19, the KCNA images on Saturday showed workers at the Sunchon plant wearing masks during the event.
On Saturday, Seoul said in a statement that “unfounded” content over the leader of the neighboring country had created confusion, stressing the need for “carefully analyzing” information related to North Korea in the future.
This is not the first time that the health of Kim Jong-un – who has gained a lot of weight over the years and bears a family history of coronary problems – has taken a long break from public appearances.
This was the third time this year that North Korea state media failed to report any public event of the leader for more than 10 days.