North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could be trying to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, a top South Korean official said Tuesday as Kim's absence from public events, including a celebration honoring his grandfather, has fueled speculation that he may be in ill health.
Though Kim has disappeared from the public eye for lengthy stretches in the past, many wondered if something was seriously wrong after he missed the April 15 holiday on the birthdate of Kim Il Sung, the country's founder. Known as "The Day of the Sun," the celebration is normally one of the country's grandest, featuring military parades, fireworks and huge public dances.
But South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul pointed out that several traditional holiday events had been canceled in response to the pandemic and that Kim's absence was not "particularly unusual" in that context.
"It is true that he had never missed the anniversary for Kim Il Sung’s birthday since he took power, but many anniversary events including celebrations and a banquet had been canceled because of coronavirus concerns," he told the South Korean parliament's foreign affairs committee, according to a translation from Reuters.
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Kim Yeon-chul said the North Korean leader's decision to skip a visit last week to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the masoleum for Kim Il Sung, fits with Pyongyang's general scaling down of commemorative events this year in response to the pandemic, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported.
The unification minister dismissed reports that Kim underwent a heart procedure as "fake news" and described rumors about the communist leader's health as an "infodemic," according to YNA.
Last week, CNN said U.S. intelligence officials were monitoring the situation after the Seoul-based Daily NK reported that Kim had heart surgery. But Kim Yeon-chul said that did not "make sense logically" because the Hyangsan Medical Center, where Daily NK claimed the operation took place, is just a clinic and "incapable of performing surgery or medical procedures."
The unification minister, who oversees relations with North Korea, said Kim has gone out of view for at least 20 days on two other occasions this year already. He repeated an assessment he shared on Monday, which said there was "enough intelligence to confidently say that there are no unusual developments" in North Korea and that a thorough analysis did not show any evidence Kim was seriously ill.
Other South Korean officials have also stressed that there are no signs of the activity that would be expected if Kim, who wields authority over the government, were in danger.
At the same hearing, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said, "Despite a series of recent media reports, no unusual signs have been detected inside North Korea," Yonhap News Agency reported.
"Kim Jong Un is alive and well," Chung-in Moon, foreign policy adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, told Fox News on Sunday. "He has been staying in the Wonsan area since April 13. No suspicious movements have so far been detected."
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The North Korean regime has claimed there are no COVID-19 cases within the country but experts highly doubt the claim that it has managed to entirely avoid the outbreak, which began in neighboring China. South Korea's foreign minister said she believes the country is focusing much of its attention and resources on the outbreak.
"While it maintains it has no coronavirus patients, it has put weight on beefing up its health and medical capabilities," Kang said, according to YNA. She cited reports that North Korea had expanded its health care budget and opened a new hospital in Pyongyang.
President Donald Trump told reporters at a White House briefing on Monday he has "a very good idea" about Kim's health and whereabouts but he "can’t talk about it now."
"I just wish him well,” Trump said. "I hope he's fine."
Contributing: Deirdre Shesgreen, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kim Jong Un: Coronavirus concern explains no show, SK official says