Kim Jong Un of North Korea made his first public appearance in three weeks on Saturday, quashing reports that he had died or may have been ill. State TV showed Kim walking, smiling widely, and smoking a cigarette at what the North claimed was the opening of a fertilizer factory in Sunchon, north of Pyongyang, on Friday.
Since his conspicuous no-show at April 15 celebrations for the birthday of his grandfather, the founder of the North, rumors about Kim’s health have swirled — the most important day on 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.
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. Kim’s sudden death would for the first time in his history have left Pyongyang facing an unplanned succession and raised unanswered questions about who would succeed him and take over the North’s nuclear arsenal.
China, a key political partner of the North and a major provider of trade and aid, is keen to maintain peace in its neighborhood and avoid the risk of refugee inflows. 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, Senior Fellow at the US Center for International Policy, told AFP. “This raises legitimate concerns about the domestic and international uncertainty that his death could cause.” In his signature black suit, Footage showed Kim waving to hundreds of employees who cheered his entrance, and released balloons.
He was flanked by senior officials — including his sister and close adviser Kim Yo Jong — and showed no signs of ill health from the outside. At one point Kim sat in front of a sign that identified the event as a factory opening ceremony for May 1, 2020, but could not independently verify his presence.
As with previous public appearances during the global coronavirus pandemic, unlike the crowd of staff at the event, Kim and his entourage didn’t wear masks. Analysts said Kim should not appear wearing a mask in public, because it would make him look weak to the people of North Korea. The North has maintained that not one single case of coronavirus has been detected, but experts agree this is impossible. 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 highly secretive leadership.