By Agence France-Presse
North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has made his first public appearance in nearly three weeks, state media reported Saturday, following intense speculation that the leader of the nuclear-armed nation was seriously ill or possibly dead.
The North reported that Kim had attended the opening of a fertiliser factory and released pictures it said showed the leader cutting a ribbon at the ceremony on Friday in Sunchon, north of Pyongyang, although the appearance could not be verified.
Rumours about Kim’s health have been swirling since his conspicuous no-show at April 15 celebrations for the birthday of his grandfather, the North’s founder — 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.
KCNA VIA KNS/AFP / STR
North Korea said the picture taken on May 1, showed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (2nd R) attending a ceremony in South Pyongan Province
Seoul’s unification ministry reached to Saturday’s report by saying “groundless” speculation about Kim had caused “unnecessary confusion”, calling for more careful consideration in future.
Kim’s 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 North’s nuclear arsenal.
The Korean Central news agency said that onlookers “broke into thunderous cheers of ‘hurrah!'” when Kim appeared.
The pictures released by the Rodong Sinmun newspaper 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.
Analysts said Kim could not appear in public wearing a mask as it would make him appear vulnerable to the North Korean people.
KCNA VIA KNS/AFP / STR
Rumours about Kim Jong Un’s health have been swirling since his conspicuous no-show at April 15 celebrations for the birthday of his grandfather, the North’s founder
The North 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.
Reporting from inside the isolated North is notoriously difficult, especially on matters relating to its leadership, which is among its most closely guarded secrets.