South Korea, China downplay claims about Kim Jong Un’s ill health

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's health has deteriorated in recent months due to heavy smoking, obesity and overwork. PHOTO: STR/KCNA VIA KNS/AFP

SEOUL - South Korea and China have downplayed speculation about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's health, sparked by media reports suggesting that his life could be in "grave danger" after surgery.

Seoul-based online newspaper Daily NK said yesterday (Tue) that Mr Kim is now recuperating at a family villa in the mountainous Hyangsan county, north-east of Pyongyang, after undergoing heart surgery at a local hospital on Apr 12.

A source told Daily NK that the North Korean leader may have required surgery due to various factors, including obesity, smoking and overwork.

The CNN news network then cited a US official as saying that they were monitoring intelligence suggesting that Mr Kim was in "grave danger" after surgery.

South Korea's presidential Blue House said, however, that "there has been no unusual activity detected in North Korea", and that "we have nothing to confirm" about claims of Mr Kim's ill health.

In China, an official with the Chinese Communist Party's international liaison department, which deals with North Korea, told Reuters news agency that Mr Kim was not believed to be critically ill.

Concern about Mr Kim's health has grown since he failed to attend the April 15 birthday celebration of his grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.

It was the first time Mr Kim Jong Un, 36, did not show up for the annual ceremony at Kumsusan Palace of The Sun to honour his grandfather since he assumed power in 2011.

The North Korean leader was also conspicuously absent when Pyongyang fired multiple short-range missiles on April 14.

He was reportedly last seen publicly on April 11, presiding over a meeting of the politburo of the ruling Workers' Party.

A photo released on April 12 by the state-owned Korean Central News Agency showed Mr Kim dressed in a white shirt, laughing as he inspected military planes in the country's western area.

Daily NK cited a source as saying that a helicopter was spotted leaving Pyongyang on April 12, along with a car used exclusively by the North Korean leader.

The source also said that Mr Kim had suffered from inflammation of blood vessels connected to the heart since August last year, and his condition worsened after making multiple trips to Mount Baekdu.

The highest peak in the North is deemed sacred by many Koreans as it is believed to be the nation's birth place. It is also said to be the birthplace of Mr Kim's late father, Mr Kim Jong Il.

Reports said Mr Kim Jong-un last scaled the mountain in December.

Speculation about the North Korean leader's health also raised questions about succession in the ultra- secretive country, with experts pointing to Mr Kim's younger sister Yo Jong as a likely defacto leader if he ended up comatose or dead.

The North has never had a female leader. However, Dr Bong Young-shik of Yonsei University noted that Ms Kim is her brother's most trusted confidante and was recently promoted to an alternate politburo member.

"Anointing Kim Yo Jong as the successor might meet with surprise and possible resistance from the political elites, but at the same time, North Korea's system is critically hinged upon the Mount Baekdu bloodline so it will be either Kim Yo Jong replacing Kim Jong Un, or Kim Jong Il's half brother Kim Pyong Il," he told The Straits Times.

For now, though, Dr Bong thinks the North Korean leader is just recuperating from a low-risk heart surgery. "It's not a life and death situation. Kim Jong Un would not have risked going to Hyangsan if the surgery was serious, knowing the best doctors and medical facilities are in Pyongyang."

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