North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends the completion of a fertiliser plant, together with his younger sister Kim Yo Jong, in…
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends the completion of a fertilizer plant, together with his younger sister Kim Yo Jong, in a region north of the capital, Pyongyang, in this image released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency on May 2, 2020.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - After a wave of news reports suggesting he was gravely ill or even dead, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has appeared in public for the first time in 21 days.

Kim’s venue choice for his reemergence was relatively mundane: the completion ceremony for a fertilizer plant in Sunchon, a city about 50 kilometers north of the capital, Pyongyang.

State television showed a smiling Kim, smoking a cigarette and casually chatting with senior officials as he sauntered around the plant. Though at times he was shuttled about in a golf cart, Kim showed no obvious signs of health problems.

Rumors about Kim’s health began to swirl after he skipped a major North Korean political anniversary on April 15. The reason for Kim’s absence remains unclear, as does the timing of his reappearance.

“I’d rather not comment on it yet,” U.S. President Donald Trump said Friday. “We’ll have something to say about it at the appropriate time.” 

It is not the first time there have been rumors about Kim’s health. In 2014, Kim disappeared from public view for about 40 days, prompting a flurry of speculation. He eventually reemerged using a cane.

Accounts vary

But this time around, the rumors were especially intense, as well as varied. Among the theories: Kim had undergone failed heart surgery, suffered a kidney malfunction, was in lockdown because of coronavirus fears or had been injured in a botched missile test. TMZ, the celebrity gossip website, reported that Kim had died.

On social media, the portly North Korean leader’s “death” had become an internet joke, with the hashtag #KimJongUnDead trending on Twitter, Instagram and other sites.

“The incident may reveal more about us than about Kim: how we keep trying to wish the problem of North Korea away through fevered speculation, rather than find practical ways to deal with it as it is,” John Delury, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University, said.

The rumors began when the Daily NK, a Seoul-based website, reported Kim was recovering after heart surgery. Several U.S. media, including CNN and NBC, then reported the U.S. had been monitoring intelligence he was in grave danger.

This picture taken on May 1, 2020 and released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on May 2, 2020, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting the completed Suchon fertilizer factory.

South Korean officials had rejected the reports, insisting Kim was alive and in control of the country. Some officials in Seoul had said Kim may have skipped the April 15 anniversary event because of coronavirus concerns. North Korea has said it does not have any coronavirus infections, a claim that experts say is unlikely.

In state media footage published Saturday, neither Kim nor any of the top officials surrounding him wore face masks. However, most if not all people wore masks in the crowd of hundreds that gathered to watch the ceremony.

The 36-year-old Kim has gained a significant amount of weight since taking over after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011. Kim's health is especially relevant because he has no clear successor, raising concerns about a power struggle in a nuclear-armed country.

“North Korean instability and power transition is a real possibility, and we need to be prepared,” says Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. diplomat focused on the Koreas.

Not much known

But the incident is a reminder of how little is known about the activity of senior leaders in North Korea, the “hardest of the hard targets,” says Bruce Klingner, a former CIA official on Korea issues.

“Things like...health (issues)...or leadership intentions, those are very difficult to get information on,” says Klingner, now with the Heritage Institute. “Really all sources of intelligence have almost unique constraints when operating in North Korea.”

One of the big questions: why did Kim skip the April 15 event commemorating the birth anniversary of his late grandfather and national founder Kim Il Sung?

While a health issue can’t be ruled out, Korea analyst Rachel Minyoung Lee says Kim may just be trying to distinguish himself from the legacies of his grandfather, as well as his father, former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

“North Korea since late last year has made an effort to distance Kim Jong Un from his predecessors, apparently to highlight [Kim] on his own merit … so what we're seeing now tracks with that trend,” she told VOA.

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And why did Kim choose a fertilizer factory to make his reappearance?

Christopher Green, a North Korea expert and lecturer at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said the reason may be simple: “North Korea has an endemic fertilizer shortage and it is May, a bad time for North Korea food security.”

“Kim Jong Un didn’t disappear to spite you,” Green said, “and hasn’t reappeared to thumb his nose at you.”