North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has made his first public appearance in nearly three weeks, state media reported Saturday, following intense speculation that the leader of the nuclear-armed nation was seriously ill or possibly dead.
According to reports, Kim had attended the opening of a fertiliser factory and released pictures it said showed the leader cutting a ribbon at the ceremony on Friday in Sunchon, north of Pyongyang, although the appearance could not be verified.
Rumours about Kim’s health have been swirling since his conspicuous no-show at April 15 celebrations for the birthday of his grandfather, the North’s founder — the most important day in the country’s political calendar.
His absence triggered a series of fevered rumours and unconfirmed reports over his condition, while the United States and South Korea insisted they had no information to believe any of the conjecture was true.
His sudden death would have left Pyongyang facing an unplanned succession for the first time in its history and raised unanswered questions over who would succeed him and take over the North’s nuclear arsenal.
The Korean Central news agency said that onlookers “broke into thunderous cheers of ‘hurrah!'” when Kim appeared.
The pictures released by the Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed Kim in his trademark black suit, smiling broadly as he looked around the factory.
He was flanked by senior officials — including his sister and close adviser Kim Yo Jong — and showed no outward signs of ill health.
Analysts said Kim could not appear in public wearing a mask as it would make him appear vulnerable to the North Korean people.
The North has insisted that it has not seen a single case of coronavirus, although experts say it is unlikely.
Kim’s repeated appearances without a mask had led some to speculate that he may have caught the virus.
The North Korean leader had not made a public appearance since presiding over a Workers’ Party politburo meeting on April 11, and the following day state media reported that he had inspected fighter jets.
Daily NK, an online media outlet run by North Korean defectors, had reported that Kim was undergoing treatment after a cardiovascular procedure last month.
Citing an unidentified source inside the country, it said Kim — who is in his mid-30s — had needed urgent treatment due to heavy smoking, obesity and fatigue.
Soon afterwards, CNN reported that Washington was “monitoring intelligence” that Kim was in “grave danger” after undergoing surgery, quoting an anonymous US official.