SEOUL • After weeks of intense speculation about the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, state news agency KCNA said yesterday that he attended the completion ceremony of a fertiliser plant north of Pyongyang, the first report of his appearance since April 11.
Reuters could not independently verify the KCNA report.
KCNA said Mr Kim cut a ribbon at the ceremony on Friday, and those attending the event "burst into thunderous cheers of 'hurrah' for the Supreme Leader".
Mr Kim was seen in photographs smiling and talking to aides at the ribbon-cutting ceremony and touring the plant. The authenticity of the photos, published on the website of the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper, could not be verified.
Many in the large crowd of people, described as officials of the army, the ruling party and the community who worked on the project, were wearing face masks and standing some distance from the podium where Mr Kim and his aides took part in the ceremony.
North Korea has not reported any cases of the coronavirus and has said it has been taking tough measures to prevent an outbreak. One suggested reason for Mr Kim's absence has been that he may have been taking precautions against the coronavirus.
Mr Kim was accompanied by senior North Korean officials, including his younger sister Kim Yo Jong and top aides, vice-chairman Pak Pong Ju of the State Affairs Commission and Cabinet Premier Kim Jae Ryong, KCNA said.
Asked about the KCNA report on Mr Kim, United States President Donald Trump said: "I'd rather not comment on it yet."
He told reporters at the White House: "We'll have something to say about it at the appropriate time."
Speculation about Mr Kim's health has been rife after he missed the birth anniversary celebrations of state founder Kim Il Sung on April 15. The day is a major holiday in North Korea, and Mr Kim, as leader, usually pays a visit to the mausoleum where his grandfather lies in state.
He last made a public appearance on April 11, attending a meeting of the ruling Workers' Party politburo.
Following his absence from the anniversary, a South Korean news outlet specialising in the North reported that Mr Kim was recovering after undergoing a cardiovascular procedure. A flurry of other unconfirmed reports about his condition and his whereabouts followed.
Officials in South Korea and the US expressed scepticism about the reports.
The city of Sunchon, where the fertiliser factory was built, is about 50km north of Pyongyang in the western region, away from Wonsan, the eastern coastal resort where South Korean and US officials have said Mr Kim may have been staying.
Mr Kim's reported appearance at the fertiliser plant is the latest signal to domestic audiences that he is watching out for their economic and food well-being, but nuclear analysts believe it is likely to be a part of the North's covert uranium enrichment efforts.
There is strong evidence of the Sunchon phosphate fertiliser plant's involvement in uranium extraction, pointing to its dual use, according to a recent report by the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California.
Negotiations aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes stalled late last year.