‘Fake News’: South Korea Again Goes to Bat for Kim Jong-un’s Health

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un looks out towards Kim Il-Sung square during a mass military parade in Pyongyang on October 10, 2015. North Korea was marking the 70th anniversary of its ruling Workers' Party.
ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

South Korea’s Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul – the official in charge of ties to North Korea – dismissed reports of communist dictator Kim Jong-un’s health failing him on Tuesday as “fake news” and insisted there is “no unusual” activity in the country.

Kim spoke at a foreign affairs committee meeting in South Korea’s National Assembly alongside Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wah, who emphatically supported Kim’s remarks. The two discussed growing unsubstantiated rumors that Kim Jong-un is struggling with a Chinese coronavirus infection, a severe heart condition, an injury at a military missile test, or may be healthy but in self-quarantine due to the ongoing pandemic.

Other reports alleged he was either dead or in a vegetative state. Reports making these claims rely exclusively on anonymous sourcing, most from people allegedly tied to the Chinese government.

“We have intelligence capacity that allows us to say confidently that there are no unusual signs,” Kim Yeon-chul said on Tuesday, referring to the flurry of North Korea stories as an “infodemic.”

“North Korean media outlets have put out reports related to Chairman Kim’s work since his attendance of a politburo meeting, suggesting he has been carrying out state affairs in a normal way,” he added.

Kim Yeon-chul particularly addressed an unsubstantiated report in American left-wing broadcaster CNN claiming that Kim’s health was a “grave danger,” noting that it had followed up on a report that Kim Jong-un had undergone heart surgery in North Korea’s Hyangsan Medical Center.

“That cannot make sense logically. … The Hyangsan Medical Center is like a clinic, a facility incapable of performing surgery or medical procedures,” the unification minister reportedly said.

The South Korean newswire service Yonhap quoted Foreign Minister Kang as reiterating Seoul had seen “no unusual signs” out of North Korea.

 “While it maintains it has no coronavirus patients, [North Korea] has put weight on beefing up its health and medical capabilities,” Kang noted.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry also announced on Tuesday that its top nuclear envoy held a phone conversation with American Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun.

“The two sides have shared assessments of the recent developments on the Korean Peninsula and exchanged their opinions on ways to cooperate between the two countries in making substantive progress in the efforts for the complete denuclearization and establishment of lasting peace on the peninsula,” the South Korean Foreign Ministry offered cryptically.

Kim addressed the dictator’s absence at the April 15 festivities to commemorate the birthday of grandfather Kim Il-sung, known as the “Day of the Sun.” April 15 is North Korea’s most important holiday and Kim Jong-un did not attend any public event for it, an unprecedented move. Yet Kim Yeon-chul and Kang insisted that this was not “unusual” given the ongoing pandemic.

South Korea has had multiple officials in the government of leftist President Moon Jae-in vehemently deny rumors that Kim Jong-un is unwell. Moon himself issued a statement on Monday to observe the anniversary of his meeting with Kim in Panmunjom, a Korean border village used for diplomacy but did not remark on his health either way. Instead, Moon advocated for closer diplomacy with North Korea despite its uninterrupted rogue behavior.

“If we don’t forget that it’s us who make our own fate on the Korean Peninsula, the road will be opened,” Moon said. “We will be able to widen the narrow road. The government will seek the most realistic and practical ways for inter-Korean cooperation.”

“I will promote the future of ‘peace economy’ based on confidence between Chairman Kim and me and our firm resolve towards peace,” he promised, indicating that he believed Kim to be alive and in control of the country.

President Donald Trump remarked publicly on the speculation on Monday, stating only that he had a “very good idea” of what was going on, but could not talk about it. Trump appeared to imply that Kim is still alive.

“I can’t tell you exactly. Yes, I do have a very good idea, but I can’t talk about it now. I just wish him well. I’ve had a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un,” Trump said. “I hope he’s fine. I do know how he’s doing, relatively speaking. We will see. You’ll probably be hearing in the not-too-distant future.”

White House

Kim Jong-un’s only known American friend, former NBA star Dennis Rodman, also told reporters that he did have any information on Kim’s health outside of what had been circulating in the news, but added he was praying for Kim.

North Korean state media continued to avoid the speculation on Tuesday, instead publishing multiple developments on the under-construction Pyongyang General Hospital. Kim Jong-un announced the hasty construction of the hospital in March, just as the Chinese coronavirus pandemic escalated in Asia, without confirming any cases of coronavirus in the country. If it is true that North Korea does not have any coronavirus cases documented, it is not clear why Pyongyang would need a brand new hospital.

On Tuesday, Rodong Sinmun, the government propaganda newspaper, reported that the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea “are rendering ardent sincerity to the Pyongyang General Hospital under construction.” The union is allegedly providing art “for the purpose of inspiring the revolutionary and fighting enthusiasm of the builders through fresh art agitation activities.”

Elsewhere in state media, North Korea has publicized several messages that Kim himself has allegedly sent to various recipients, among them construction workers in Wonsan, the port city that Kim has struggled for years, unsuccessfully, to turn into a beachside resort. The monitor site 38 North reported that Kim’s family train appears to be stationed in Wonsan, a sign that the dictator has left Pyongyang. South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo published a story citing an anonymous allegedly American official who claimed that a portly man was spotted on Wonsan’s beaches, a sign Kim was in town.

North Korean media also published reports last week that Kim had sent several congratulatory birthday notes to elder North Koreans and Cuba’s second-in-command, Miguel Díaz-Canel, a close North Korean ally.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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