SEOUL- Officials in South Korea warn the media against making claims that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is ill, dead, or quarantining from the coronavirus.
Kim Jong Un failed to appear at the biggest public ceremony of the year to commemorate the birth of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, and the founding of North Korea on 15 April, CNBC said.
According to Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith of Reuters, this absence catalyzed the rumors of his ill health. Quickly noticed by locals and foreigners alike, investigations soon began.
A top foreign policy adviser to South Korean president Moon Jae-in, Moon Chung-in, said the South Korean government has knowledge that, “Kim Jong Un is alive and well,” which they reported to United States government officials, Shin and Smith reported. “He has been staying in the Wonsan area since 13 April. No suspicious movements have so far been detected.”
There are reasons to believe Kim’s unprecedented actions are not particularly unusual according to Kim Yeon-Chul, the South Korean Unification Minister, said CNBC.
While Kim had previously never missed the 15 April anniversary since his rise to power, the coronavirus had already caused numerous festivities to be cancelled, said Kim Yeon-Chul.
Given the situation, Kim Yeon-Chul said that his absence was nothing of concern, and prior historical absences show that the disappearance was not a one time event. BBC News’s Michael Madden said that for three weeks in February, Kim Jong Un made a sudden disappearance, along with 40 days in 2016 when he was supposedly overthrown in a coup.
Kim Jong Un’s absence from the celebrations raised public speculations about his health, but four days prior, Yoon Sang-Hyun, chairman of the foreign and unification committee in South Korea’s National Assembly, took notice of his dubious actions. “There has not been any report showing he’s making policy decisions as usual since 11 April, which leads us to assume that he is either sick or being isolated because of coronavirus concerns,” Shin and Smith reported.
Last Saturday, the 38 North company, a North Korean surveillance project based in Washington D.C., reported sight of a train at Wonson via satellite that was believed to be his, said Shin and Smith.
It’s believed by some that this is where he went into isolation from the coronavirus. Dierdre Shesgreen of USA Today, however, says that North Korea claims there have been no cases of the coronavirus in the country.
In an analysis for 38 North, two Asia experts said, “It is puzzling to see how a country that shares such close trading ties (albeit surreptitiously) with China, where the virus had its origin, has remained immune to such a pandemic,” according to Shesgreen. Though there are claims of a virus-free nation, Shesgreen said NK News reported that it still hasn’t stopped North Korean consumers from worry and “panic-buying” supplies.
Shesgreen said former CIA analyst and North Korea expert with the Brookings Institution, Jung H. Pak, stated amidst controversy of the virus, “When there’s no testing, you don’t know if this person is dying of tuberculosis or malaria or COVID.” North Korea is known for being secretive, so it’s unlikely to know when and if the coronavirus has had drastic effects on the nation.
Allegedly Kim acted proactively in January to prevent the spread of COVID-19, banning travel in and out of the country, stopping trade and illegal smuggling. The threat of severe punishment, said Shesgreen, was imparted if Kim’s regulations were broken.
Some experts believe the coronavirus did reach the country despite these measures.
A Japanese reporter claimed 100 North Korean soldiers died from the virus since February, said Shesgreen.
Radio Free Asia broadcast a report on 18 April, saying local citizens were informed of cases in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and other provinces nationwide by officials, Shesgreen reported.
If the coronavirus is in fact not affecting anyone in North Korea, the food shortages very well could.
Mike Pompeo, Senator of State, went on Fox News to warn against the risk of famine in North Korea, said Shesgreen. The country unfortunately has a history of famine; in the 1990’s, famine killed millions of North Koreans, according to Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation, and as recently as 2019, the United Nations revealed that up to 10 million citizens were suffering from food shortages, Shesgreen found. 38 North concluded 95% of North Korea’s imports come from China, said Shesgreen, and much of that is food, which is worrying for many.
Reports as of this Saturday morning claim that Kim is alright after he showed up to a ceremony at a fertilizer factory, according to Choe Sang-Hun of The New York Times. With Kim’s sudden disappearance, “We got a glimpse of the danger of loose nukes and worse if the death of Kim Jong-un had unleashed a destabilizing power struggle,” said the vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, Danny Russel.