SEOUL: North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has made his first public appearance in nearly three weeks, state media reported on Saturday, following intense speculation that he was seriously ill or possibly dead.
The country reported that Kim had attended the opening of a fertiliser factory and released pictures showing the leader cutting a ribbon at the ceremony on Friday in Sunchon, north of Pyongyang.
Rumours about Kim’s health have been swirling since his no-show at April 15 celebrations for the birthday of his grandfather, the North’s founder, considered as 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 nuclear arsenal.
The Korean Central news agency said that onlookers broke into thunderous cheers when Kim appeared. The pictures released 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.
As with previous pictures released by the North during the global coronavirus pandemic, Kim was not wearing a mask, unlike the hundreds of workers cheering for him and releasing balloons.
North Korea 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.
An online media outlet run mostly by North Korean defectors in Seoul had reported that Kim was undergoing treatment after a cardiovascular procedure last month and had needed urgent treatment due to heavy smoking, obesity and fatigue.
US media reported that Washington was monitoring intelligence that Kim was in “grave danger” after undergoing surgery. Officials in Seoul had consistently downplayed reports and said that Kim was “alive and well” and staying in the eastern resort town of Wonsan.
US President Donald Trump suggested earlier this week that Washington believed Kim to be alive and well and declined to immediately comment on Kim’s apparent re-emergence.
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