Reports out of South Korea continued to deny on Wednesday and Thursday local time that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s life is in danger. The rebuttals are designed to counter American media reports that Kim could be on his deathbed or even “brain dead.”
Reports of potentially severe health challenges facing Kim, believed to be about 36 years old, initially surfaced on the website Daily NK, which covers the repressive country. The publication, citing one unnamed source, claimed that Kim underwent heart surgery on April 12 and is recovering and at high risk for exposure to the Chinese coronavirus, which is deadly to many with preexisting medical conditions.
North Korea insists that it has documented zero cases of Chinese coronavirus in the country, despite being located in an area surrounded by nations with high numbers of cases. Some reports indicate that the virus has killed as many as 100 soldiers on the nation’s border with China.
On Monday, CNN reported that Kim could be in “grave danger,” though the quotes from anonymous officials the network published noted merely that intelligence officials were interested in monitoring Kim’s health. Kim is believed to be significantly obese, a factor that puts him at high risk of complicates from coronavirus, making his health important to track regardless of reports of any surgery.
Subsequent unsubstantiated American media chatter on Monday claimed he was “brain dead” or at least facing life-threatening health challenges. The reports were fueled in part by Kim’s bizarre absence from the public eye since April 11, the day before he allegedly had surgery. For the first time since ascending to the totalitarian throne of his father Kim Jong-il, the dictator missed the nation’s most important holiday this weekend, the birthday of his grandfather Kim Il-sung. Some suggested only a emergency could keep Kim from such an event.
On Thursday South Korea time, the nation’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper published a story adding to the government denials of these reports titled “Kim Jong-un Is Perfectly Fine, Sources Say.”
An unnamed South Korean “government source” told the newspaper that Kim “is staying at a villa in Kangwon Province and has been conducting undisclosed visits to nearby locations” but Seoul has no information indicating that Kim’s death is imminent.
The nation’s Yonhap news agency published a story Wednesday similarly quoting an unnamed official at the presidential office insisting that, in North Korea, “there has been no unusual activity.”
Yonhap noted that the official “would not comment on Kim’s whereabouts and whether he underwent a heart surgery.”
Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean conservative newspaper, similarly quoted a “senior Cheong Wa Dae [presidential palace, the Blue House] official” insisting, “Kim is believed to be staying outside of Pyongyang with his close advisers and appears to be performing his duties as usual.”
Chosun Ilbo claimed that intelligence officials in the country believed Kim was staying in Wonsan, a seaside town Kim has attempted for years, unsuccessfully, to turn into a popular resort area. Wonsan is the capital of Kangwon province.
The second wave of reports out of South Korea occurred despite no significant updates on Kim since the reports on Monday. North Korean state media has not published any information regarding the reports, instead dedicating much of its effort Tuesday to reports on Kim wishing a happy birthday to several notable North Koreans and Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Absent from the list of those honored for their birthdays was Kim Il-sung.
South Korean officials already dismissed the initial reports on Tuesday.
“There is nothing unusual going on in North Korea. It’s not true,” a Seoul government official had reportedly told Yonhap.
“From what I hear, it is true that Kim Jong Un has some health issues. His heart has been in a bad condition due to cardiovascular problems,” Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean refugee elected last week to South Korea’s federal legislature, told Radio Free Asia (RFA). Ji also reportedly stated that he believed Kim had undergone a medical procedure of some sort, though the secretive nature of the communist regime makes it difficult to confirm which.
“I think that we know that Kim Jong Un has health issues, based on his smoking, his weight and previous concerns about gout and other health related issues, so health is certainly a concern,” Frank Aum, the Senior Advisor to the Asia Center at the United States Institute of Peace, told RFA. “That being said I think, the report that came out last night, we have to be very cautious about, because it goes from one unconfirmed source. We shouldn’t be getting too spun up from a report that has one unconfirmed source.”
Later on Tuesday, American officials, including President Donald Trump, denied having any such information.
“These are reports that came out, and we don’t know,” Trump told reporters during his daily Chinese coronavirus press briefing. “I can only say this, I wish him well.”