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Skepticism, scrutiny urged after dire reports on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un before a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on the south side of the Military Demarcation Line that divides North and South Korea, in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized zone (DMZ) on June 30, 2019. State media said Kim inspected a new submarine that would soon be deployed. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
April 22, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

After a flurry of speculative reports surrounding the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a top defector from the country and experts warned Tuesday against relying on thin sourcing for information on the opaque regime, while one former resident of the North said Kim had undergone a surgical procedure.

An escalating series of reports Monday night and Tuesday morning began with a report on the Daily NK website, the Seoul-based outlet that specializes in news about the North said the North Korean leader was recovering after his April 12 surgery, citing a single source.

Subsequent reports by other outlets put Kim’s health in varying states of emergency, with CNN at one point saying Kim was believed to be in grave danger or even brain-dead.

South Korea’s presidential Blue House issued a statement Tuesday saying that it had not detected any unusual developments in North Korea and could not confirm any of the reports.

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South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, quoting a senior Blue House official, reported that Kim was staying outside of Pyongyang with his aides, and that the various branches of North Korea’s government were not making special moves or undertaking any emergency maneuvers.

Ji Seong-ho, a former North Korean citizen who won a seat in the South Korean National Assebly last week, told RFA’s Korean Service in a telephone interview that indeed, Kim did have a medical procedure.

“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,” said Ji, who cited a source familiar with the internal situation in North Korea.

Thae Yong Ho, the former North Korean deputy ambassador to the U.K. who defected in 2016 and last week who also won his election to the South Korean National Assembly, said in a press release that the movements of the Kim family and their personal affairs are unknown to ordinary people, even among top officials.

He did however stress that the situation should be closely watched, because whenever there is controversy over the status of the country’s leader, North Korea would soon make a big deal out of the leader’s next public appearance.

A U.S.-based North Korea expert told RFA that there appeared to be little doubt about the 36-year-old Kim’s having undergone a surgical procedure, but warned against errant speculation about his health status.

“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,” said Frank Aum, the Senior Advisor to the Asia Center at the United States Institute of Peace.

“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,” he said.

“We don’t have enough information so we shouldn’t spend too much time speculating about this,” he added.

Mark P. Barry, who is an associate editor of the International Journal on World Peace, told RFA that the Daily NK’s story, which he read a corrected version of, seemed largely credible.

“CNN continues to use the phrase ‘grave danger’ in describing Kim’s condition after cardiovascular surgery. I don’t necessarily think that either the U.S. or South Korea has any way to know,” said Barry.

“Did he have open heart surgery? If so, what procedure(s) were done? Did he merely get a stent for a blocked artery? Were the doctors Korean, Russian, Chinese or European? In any case, Kim Il Sung had heart surgery in 1986 and Kim Jong Il in 2008, yet they still lived several more years, albeit in declining health,” Barry added. The eldest Kim died in 1994, and his son, in 2011.

RFA attempted to contact the Department of State for comment, but were referred to the White House.  National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien told local media Tuesday that the U.S. does not know about Kim’s health.