Seoul downplays reports of Kim Jong-un’s alleged heart surgery

(Update 1: adds more information, changes headline)

By Andres Sanchez Braun

Seoul, Apr 21 (efe-epa).- The South Korean government said Tuesday that it had not detected any unusual activity in North Korea, following recent media reports about the regime’s leader Kim Jong-un possibly being in a critical condition after supposedly undergoing heart surgery.

Spokesperson of the presidential office in Seoul, Kang Min-seok, said in a statement that there was nothing to confirm about the reports concerning Kim’s health, and that South Korean authorities had not detected anything out of the ordinary across the border.

An article published by Daily NK, a Seoul based media run by North Korean deserters with contacts in the neighboring country, as well as a report by US broadcaster CNN claimed that Kim had recently undergone a heart surgery.

A spokesperson of South’s Unification Ministry, when contacted by EFE regarding the reports, said there was “no official comment” from the government.

The Daily NK article, published Monday, said that the reasons for the leader – aged 36 or 37 years – having undergone a heart operation could be smoking, obesity and overexertion.

CNN, on its part, said that “the US is monitoring intelligence that suggests North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, is in grave danger after undergoing a previous surgery,” but did not provide further details.

According to Daily NK, on Apr. 12 Kim was allegedly transferred from Pyongyang to a medical center in Hyangsan County, where he is believed to have undergone the operation and was currently under medical attention in a nearby residence.

This is not the first time that the health of North Korean leaders has been under speculation, especially given the traditional secrecy surrounding the Kim family.

In 2014, Kim Jong-un – who has gained a lot of weight over the years and bears a family history of coronary problems – was absent from public eye for about 40 days, leading to widespread speculation about his health.

He eventually reappeared with a limp, which South Korean intelligence finally attributed to an ankle operation.

The recent reports come after Kim presided over a politburo meeting of the Workers’ Party on Apr.11 and appointed his sister Kim Yo-jong as an alternate member.

Moreover, there were three notable absences of the leader in different important events, starting with the Supreme People’s Assembly (parliament) session on Apr.12, held after a two-day delay that was not explained.

The North Korean media also did not mention the leader’s presence during a weapons test on Apr.14, the type of event which he is usually known to attend.

The North Korean leader apparently also missed a ritualistic visit on Apr.15 to the mausoleum where the remains of his grandfather Kim Il-sung are kept.

Kim traditionally visits the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun every year on Apr. 15, the birth anniversary of his grandfather and a national holiday, to pay tribute to the country’s founder.

Analyst Shim Jae-hoon told EFE that these absences, together with the appointment of Kim Yo-jong, was the main reason behind the speculations, about which he said he was “very skeptical.”

Shim considered that CNN’s information did not have much to back it up with, whereas Daily NK had posted incorrect information many times in the past.

Meanwhile, South Korean officials told the Yonhap news agency under the condition of anonymity that Kim Jong-un was now believed be outside the capital near Wonsan, in the eastern coast.

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