Kim Jong-un is not sick and could be immune to the coronavirus pandemic, according to South Korean and American officials, in the latest possible explanation for the recent absence of the North Korean leader from public life.
North Korea insists that it has yet to identify a single case of Covid-19, despite sharing a border with China, where the epidemic is believed to have started.
Despite recent reports that Kim missed a key anniversary event after undergoing cardiac surgery, South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said it was reasonable to assume he had decided to do not attend as a precaution.
Kim was absent from an April 15 ceremony to mark the anniversary of the birth of her grandfather – and founder of North Korea – Kim Il-sung.
“We have an intelligence capacity that allows us to confidently say that there are no unusual signs [in North Korea]Said Kim Yeon-chul at a parliamentary hearing.
“He hadn’t missed the birthday … since taking power, but many birthday events, including celebrations and a banquet, were canceled due to coronavirus problems.
“I don’t think it is particularly unusual given the current situation,” he said, describing reports that Kim had had heart surgery as “false news”.
US officials have told Reuters they believe Kim had taken his private train to the resort town of Wonsan on the east coast to protect himself from the virus.
Kim Yeon-chul noted that there have been at least two cases since mid-January where Kim had not been seen in public for nearly three weeks.
The North Korean leader was last seen in public on April 11 while chairing a meeting of the party’s political bureau. State media has not published a single photo of Kim since, but they have published reports on his daily routine, including diplomatic messages sent to other world leaders.
Speculation that Kim was staying at Wonsan increased over the weekend after the Washington-based North Korea surveillance project 38 North said it had analyzed satellite images showing his special train parked at the local station.
The NK News website said on Tuesday that pleasure boats often used by Kim had been active in the area throughout the month.
North Korea sealed its border with China at the start of the coronavirus epidemic, quarantined thousands of people and reduced public events. Observers are, however, skeptical of the regime’s claims that the country is free from the virus.
Edwin Salvador, the World Health Organization’s representative in North Korea, said last week that the country announced that it had tested 740 people for Covid-19 as of April 17, but that all were negative. The North said it had released more than 25,000 quarantine workers so far since late December, Salvador said.
Jiro Ishimaru, who runs the Osaka-based Asia Press website and operates a network of citizen journalists in North Korea, said confirming that Kim was isolated would prove that the virus had spread inside the country.
“I don’t think he is dead – if that were the case, there would be many more identifiable movements,” Ishimaru, who recently spoke to North Koreans near the Chinese border, told The Guardian. “One theory is that he has the virus himself or that the people around him have it and that he is safe. “
Ishimaru said it was possible that the regime deliberately sent Kim’s train to Wonsan – knowing that the satellite images would be seen by analysts – to give the impression that it was just taking a break when in fact, he isolated himself elsewhere.
“All the attention is on Wonsan, but there is a chance that he is cheating on everyone,” said Ishimaru.
Chad O’Carroll, managing director of Korea Risk Group, which oversees North Korea, said that any evidence that Kim was immune to the virus “would cut a hole in the state’s media account of how this crisis has been perfectly managed ”.