SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has reappeared in public following his second consecutive three-week absence amid rumors about his health.
State media on Sunday said Kim presided over a meeting that discussed, among other things, expanding the country’s “nuclear war deterrence.”
Pictures showed Kim signing documents, making a speech and pointing to a television screen that had been blurred by censors.
The pictures, published in the official Korean Central News Agency, revealed no obvious signs of new health problems.
It was Kim’s first public appearance since May 1, when he showed up at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a fertilizer factory, following an earlier three-week absence from state media.
A wave of unconfirmed reports in April suggested Kim had experienced a serious health problem, such as a heart procedure. Some reports said he had died.
Since the beginning of the year, Kim has disappeared from public view for about three weeks on three separate occasions. North Korea has not explained the reason for Kim’s absences.
In some ways, Kim’s lower profile is similar to that of many world leaders during the coronavirus pandemic. Some experts have speculated Kim may simply be making fewer public appearances as an extra health precaution during the outbreak.
However, North Korea has repeatedly insisted it does not have any coronavirus infections. That assertion is widely disputed.
Neither Kim nor any of the North Korean military leaders appeared to wear face masks during the “enlarged meeting” of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, according to pictures published by KCNA.
During the meeting, the leaders “set forth … new policies for further increasing the nuclear war deterrence of the country,” according to KCNA. The report did not elaborate on what concrete steps would be taken.
“Reading the statement, I think this suggests something related to the organizational ‘software’ underpinning deterrence and less about the hardware (missiles, for instance),” said Ankit Panda, a specialist on North Korea’s weapons program and author of the soon-to-be-released book “Kim Jong Un and the Bomb.”
KCNA also said “crucial measures” were taken for “considerably increasing the firepower strike ability of the artillery pieces of the Korean People's Army.”
At the beginning of the year, Kim warned that his country is no longer bound by its self-imposed suspension of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests. Kim vowed the world would soon witness a “new strategic weapon.”
Over the past year, Kim has repeatedly conducted tests of short-range ballistic missiles and other weapons. U.S. President Donald Trump has said he is not bothered by such tests. But a bigger provocation could completely derail U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks, which have already been stalled for most of the past year.
Trump and Kim have met three times, including in June 2018, when they signed a statement agreeing to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But the two sides have not been able to agree on what “denuclearization” means or how to begin working toward it.
In January, senior North Korean diplomat Kim Kye Gwan said further dialogue was only possible if the U.S. agrees to all of North Korea’s demands.
North Korea wants sanctions relief and security assurances before it takes even limited steps to dismantle its nuclear program. Trump has indicated he may relax sanctions but only if North Korea first agrees to give up its entire nuclear program.