SEOUL (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may have missed a key holiday on April 15 because of concerns over the coronavirus, not because he is ill, South Korea's minister for North Korean affairs said on Tuesday (April 28).
Mr Kim's absence from public ceremonies on the birth anniversary of his grandfather and founder of the country, Kim Il Sung, was unprecedented, and he has not been seen in public since. That has led to days of speculation over his health.
South Korea's Unification Minister says the government knows where Mr Kim Jong Un is.
"The government is aware of Kim Jong Un’s location,” Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said when asked directly in a parliamentary session on Tuesday, without elaborating.
Asked separately if South Korea informed President Donald Trump of Kim Jong Un’s whereabouts and condition, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said the US leader was in constant communication with South Korean officials and “should have been notified".
She later clarified that Trump was aware of Mr Kim Jong Un’s condition but not his location.
North Korea has said it has no confirmed cases of the coronavirus, but given the fact that the country has taken stringent steps to head off an outbreak, Mr Kim's absence from the ceremonies is not particularly unusual, Unification Minister Kim, told lawmakers.
"It is true that he had never missed the anniversary for Kim Il Sung's birthday since he took power, but many anniversary events including celebrations and a banquet had been cancelled because of coronavirus concerns," Mr Kim Yeon-chul said at a parliamentary hearing.
He said there were at least two instances since mid-January where Mr Kim Jong Un was out of sight for nearly 20 days.
"I don't think that's particularly unusual given the current (coronavirus) situation."
The unification minister described reports that Kim had undergone a heart procedure, and that a Chinese medical team had travelled to North Korea, as “fake news”.
Citing three people familiar with the situation, Reuters reported on Saturday that China had dispatched a team to North Korea including medical experts to advise on Kim Jong Un, though it was unclear what the trip signalled in terms of Mr Kim’s health.
Mr Trump said on Monday (April 27) he has a good idea how Mr Kim Jong Un is doing and hopes he is fine, but would not elaborate.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he was aware of reports on Mr Kim's health and he was was paying close attention to developments.
North Korea had cancelled some large events, and imposed a border lockdown and quarantine measures in an effort to prevent an outbreak of the coronavirus.
But if Mr Kim is hiding out due to fears surrounding Covid-19, it would "puncture a hole in the state media narrative of how this crisis has been perfectly managed", said Mr Chad O'Carroll, CEO of Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.
"If he is merely trying to avoid infection, it should theoretically be very easy to release photos or videos of a healthy-looking Kim," he said.
SIGNS OF LIFE
An authoritative source familiar with US intelligence reporting said on Monday it was entirely possible Mr Kim had disappeared from public view to avoid exposure to Covid-19, and the sighting of his presidential train in the coastal resort area of Wonsan did suggest he may be there or have been there recently.
But the source said that since there was no authoritative backing for such a conclusion, US agencies were also still considering the possibility Mr Kim might be ill, even seriously.
Washington-based North Korea monitoring project 38 North said last Saturday that satellite images from last week showed a special train that was probably Mr Kim's at Wonsan, lending weight to reports he had been spending time in the resort area.
Mr Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea in 2016, said that the train could be a deception tactic used by North Korea to mask Kim’s movements.
“North Korea always perceives that US spy satellites are monitoring the North and is prepared for it,” he said in a post on Facebook.
North Korean media reports suggest that Kim is still carrying out his duties, Unification minister Kim said, although some experts say they are not necessarily conclusive.
"I agree with the South Korean government's assessment that there is no reason to think Kim Jong Un is not performing his duties," said Ms Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former North Korea open source intelligence analyst for the US government. "That said, I would not read too much into letters signed by Kim Jong Un. I would guess that most of them are not written by him anyway."