This week, South Korean intelligence officers rejected rumors that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s three-week absence from public view was caused by heart surgery.
On Wednesday, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) told members of South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence committee that the claims Kim had undergone heart surgery were “groundless,” Reuters reported.
“The NIS assesses that at least he did not get any heart-related procedure or surgery,” committee member Kim Byung-kee said of the intelligence briefing. “He was normally performing his duties when he was out of the public eye. At least there’s no heart-related health problem.”
The NIS instead believes Kim’s three-week absence from public view may have been due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
“Kim Jong Un had focused on consolidating internal affairs such as military forces and party-state meetings, and coronavirus concerns have further limited his public activity,” Kim Byung-kee said. “Though North Korea maintains it has zero cases, it cannot be ruled out that there is an outbreak there given they had active people-to-people exchanges with China before closing the border in late January.”
While the North Korean leader’s three-week absence did touch off speculations about his health, Kim Byung-kee did note the North Korean leader has only been seen 17 times so far this year, while he has been seen an average of 50 times by the same point in previous years.
South Korea’s Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who oversees North Korea affairs, said Kim’s absence wasn’t particularly unusual and said North Korea had taken strong steps to lock down the country after the global coronavirus outbreak began.
The report is the latest news since reports from the South Korean publication Daily NK reported claims Kim was in a compromised health state following surgery. Kim’s absence was particularly notable after he missed the April 15 celebrations for his grandfather, the founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung. Western media outlets widely reported the absence as a number of theories surfaced about Kim’s disappearance, such as that he was either in a comatose state or that he had died outright following the reported surgery.
The North Korean official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) news agency published photos over the weekend showing Kim’s return to the public view. In the photos, Kim is seen at the opening of a new fertilizer factory in the country.
North Korea has claimed zero coronavirus cases in the country, though many North Korea experts have cast doubt on the claims, such as former CIA analyst and North Korea expert Jung H. Pak, who said North Korea’s claim is “a near impossibility.”