North Korean state media on Wednesday made no mention of new appearances by leader Kim Jong Un, amid continued international speculation over his health following reports he underwent surgery.
Officials in South Korea and China and sources familiar with US intelligence have cast doubt on media reports that claimed Kim was gravely ill after a cardiovascular procedure, while the White House said it was closely monitoring the issue.
US President Donald Trump, who held unprecedented summits with Kim in 2018 and 2019 in an attempt to persuade him to give up his nuclear weapons, said the South Korean and US reports had not been confirmed and he did not put much credence in them.
“I just hope he’s doing fine,” Trump told a White House news conference on Tuesday. “I’ve had a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un. And I’d like to see him do well. We’ll see how he does. We don’t know if the reports are true.”
Speculation about Kim’s health first arose due to his absence from the anniversary of the birthday of North Korea’s founding father and Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.
But South Korea’s presidential office said Kim appeared to be handling state affairs as usual and that it had no information about rumours regarding his health. Many will now be watching closely for any signs of trouble in North Korea and whether it will address the reports – something it has not yet done.
Mulberry picking, no Kim
On Wednesday, the main headlines from the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) included pieces on sports equipment, mulberry picking and a meeting in Bangladesh to study North Korea’s “juche” or self-reliance ideology. The official Rodong Sinmun newspaper carried articles on a self-sufficient economy and anti-coronavirus measures.
In 2014, he vanished from the public eye for nearly six weeks before reappearing with a cane. South Korea’s spy agency said days later that he had had a cyst removed from his ankle.
Governments and media outside North Korea have a mixed record on tracking developments among its ruling elite, made difficult by the North’s stringent control of information about them. In 2016, South Korean media quoted intelligence officials as saying Kim had had a former military chief executed for corruption and other charges. But months later, North Korea’s state media showed Ri Yong Gil alive and serving in a new senior post.
It is unclear what would happen if Kim were sidelined by health problems or died.
With no details known about Kim’s young children, analysts said Kim’s sister and loyalists could form a regency until a successor was old enough to take over.
“The basic assumption would be maybe it would be someone in the family,” said National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien in a comment made to Fox News channel. “But again, it’s too early to talk about that because we just don’t know what condition Chairman Kim is in and we’ll have to see how it plays out.”
Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea said political upheaval would be unlikely as Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong is already exercising significant influence within the government, and most members of North Korea’s leadership share an interest with the Kim family in maintaining the North’s system.
However, Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University and a policy adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, sees the possibility of a violent power struggle.
While Kim Yo Jong would most likely emerge as leader during a transitional period, other members of the top elite could try to reduce her to a figurehead while making important decisions from the shadows, Koh said.