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US keeping a sharp eye on North Korea amid Kim Jong Un ‘dire’ health rumors

The RC-135V/W Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo)
April 23, 2020

A U.S. surveillance aircraft was identified flying over South Korea on Wednesday according to an aviation tracker. The flight was one in a series of increased surveillance flight sightings over the Korean Peninsula as North Korea’s missile testing increases and rumors circulate about the health status of North Korea’s leader.

A U.S. Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint was spotted in the skies over Seoul and in South Korea’s Gyeonggi province, along the border with North Korea, the Yonhap News Agency reported, citing a tweet from the Aircraft Spots Twitter account.

Another RC-135 aircraft was last spotted on Monday, followed by additional surveillance flights from a U.S. Air Force E-8C and a U.S. Navy P-3C.

The Yonhap News Agency has speculated that the U.S. military has allowed more of its surveillance flights to be seen flying near North Korea in recent months, in response to North Korean military buildups. The military buildups have emerged since denuclearization talks with the U.S. stalled.

Sources for Yonhap suggested the flights are likely part of regular surveillance operations, but that the U.S. may have allowed some of its spy planes to be seen to send a warning to North Korea.

The U.S. allowing increased sightings of its surveillance flight may come as a response to recent North Korean missile tests, though flights in more recent days also come after reports emerged late on Monday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is in failing health following a recent heart procedure.

South Korean officials initially dismissed the claims regarding Kim’s health, though White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien did appear on a Tuesday interview with Fox News and did say the U.S. is closely monitoring reports about Kim’s health. Other U.S. officials and President Donald Trump have since moved away from the claims.

“Well, these are reports that came out, and we don’t know. We don’t know,” Trump said when asked about Kim’s health during a Tuesday White House press briefing.

On Wednesday Vice Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten appeared to dismiss the claims surrounding Kim’s health, by stating the U.S. has received no intelligence to suggest Kim is in a compromised state.

“I assume Kim Jong Un is still in full control of the Korean nuclear force and the Korean military forces,” Hyten told reporters Wednesday.

An increase in surveillance flight sightings may also be indicative of overall heightened surveillance activity brought up in anticipation of new or unusual military activity in North Korea, such as a new missile launch.

On April 14, North Korea tested several different missile systems, including what are presumed to be cruise missiles and several more aircraft fired air-to-surface missiles, all of which splashed down into waters off the Korean coast.