State media report on North Korean leader at ribbon-cutting ceremony after weeks of speculation over his health.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his first public appearance in 20 days, ending an absence that sparked global speculation about his health.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on Saturday that Kim attended a ceremony marking the completion of a fertiliser factory in Sunchon, near the capital Pyongyang, with other senior officials, including his sister, Kim Yo Jong.
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KCNA said Kim cut a ribbon at the ceremony on Friday and those attending “burst into thunderous cheers of ‘hurrah!’ for the Supreme Leader who is commanding the all-people general march for accomplishing the great cause of prosperity”.
Kim was seen in photographs smiling and talking to aides at the ribbon-cutting ceremony and also touring the plant.
The authenticity of the photos, published on the website of the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper, could not be verified.
Rumours about the North Korean leader’s health swirled after he missed the April 15 birthday celebration for his late grandfather Kim Il Sung, the country’s most important holiday, for the first time since he took power in 2011.
US President Donald Trump welcomed Kim’s re-emergence, saying in a Twitter post: “I, for one, am glad to see he is back, and well!”
Seoul’s unification ministry reacted to Saturday’s report by saying “groundless” speculation about Kim had caused “unnecessary confusion”, calling for more careful consideration in future.
South Korea’s government, which has a mixed record of tracking Pyongyang’s ruling elite, had repeatedly downplayed media reports that Kim, believed to be 36, was in poor health following cardiovascular surgery.
But speculation about Kim’s health continued, after state-run television footage on Saturday showed Kim’s leg movements appearing stiff and jerky. One of the images also showed a green golf cart in the background, similar to one he used in 2014 after a lengthy public absence.
Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, said the video footage of Kim suggested he is recovering from some sort of medical setback that affected his walking, possibly related to his ankle.
“Preparing desks and chairs on the stage seemed a bit rare for such an outdoor occasion,” Nam Seong-wook, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University, said of the ceremony.
“Kim might have some physical conditions that prevent him from standing too long and he needs to be seated after standing up for a while.”
Nam said if Kim is unable to stand for long periods that maybe the reason he did not attend the anniversary event in April at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where he would have had to stand for at least about an hour.
South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who oversees engagement with Pyongyang, said it was plausible Kim was absent as a precaution over the coronavirus pandemic.
As with previous public appearances during the global coronavirus pandemic, Kim and his entourage were not wearing masks, unlike the crowd of workers at the ceremony.
North Korea has insisted it has not seen a single case of coronavirus, although experts say that is unlikely.
Analysts said Kim could not appear in public wearing a mask as it would make him appear vulnerable to the North Korean people.
“The most likely explanation for Kim’s absence is with North Korea declaring the coronavirus pandemic an existential threat … he most likely was taking steps to ensure his health or may have been impacted in some way personally by the virus,” said Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest think-tank in Washington, DC.
State media previously reported that Kim was carrying out routine activities outside public view such as sending greetings to the leaders of Syria, Cuba and South Africa and expressing gratitude to workers building tourist facilities in the coastal town of Wonsan, where some speculated he was staying.
‘Tense security crisis’
Analysts say Kim’s health could become an increasing factor in years ahead: He is overweight, smokes and drinks, and has a family history of heart issues.
If he is suddenly unable to rule, some analysts have said his sister, believed to be about four years younger than her brother, would be installed as the leader to continue Pyongyang’s heredity dynasty that began after World War II.
But others question whether core members of North Korea’s elite, mostly men in their 60s or 70s, would be able to accept a young and untested female leader who lacks military credentials. Some predict collective leadership or violent power struggles.
Following an unusually provocative run in missile and nuclear tests in 2017, Kim used the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea to initiate negotiations with Washington and Seoul later that year. That led to a surprising series of summits, with Kim and Trump meeting three times
But negotiations have faltered in recent months over disagreements in exchanging sanctions relief and disarmament steps, raising doubts about whether Kim would ever fully deal away an arsenal he likely sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.
It was still unclear what caused Kim’s absence in past weeks. In 2014, Kim vanished from the public eye for nearly six weeks and then reappeared with a cane. South Korea’s spy agency said he had a cyst removed from his ankle.
The former top US diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, said the pieces of the puzzle of Kim’s disappearance would take time to assemble.
His reappearance showed that authoritative information about the wellbeing and whereabouts of a North Korean leader were closely guarded, and rumours about him needed to be regarded with considerable scepticism, Russel said.
The rumours had, however, served to focus attention on North Korea’s succession plan, which “in a monarchical and cult-like dictatorship is filled with risk, and the absence of a designated adult heir compounds that risk many times over,” he added.
Analysts say Kim is likely to make another public appearance in the coming days that will be reported by state media.
But Pyongyang “probably won’t explain Kim’s recent absence given the secrecy around the leader’s health and schedule”, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul.
China, North Korea’s key diplomatic ally and the main provider of trade and aid, is eager to maintain stability in its neighbour and avoid the possibility of an influx of refugees.
North Korea is “at the epicentre of an extremely tense security crisis”, involving “a nuclear standoff where tens of millions of lives are at stake,” Henri Feron, a senior fellow at the US Center for International Policy, told AFP news agency.
“This raises legitimate concerns about the domestic and international instability that his death could cause.”
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