North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was last pictured centre stage at a key political meeting on April 11, but has been out of the country’s state media ever since. Now, after failing to appear at one of the secretive nation’s most important annual events, there is mounting speculation about his health.
On Monday, President Donald Trump said he had a “very good idea” about Mr Kim’s condition, but added that “I can’t talk about it”.
“I just wish him well,” he added.
Mr Trump has met Mr Kim three times since 2018 – but the denuclearisation talks have stalled in recent months.
Kim is thought to be 36 years of age, but obesity and a weakness for cigarettes mean he has long been the subject of rumours about poor health – from fractured ankles to gout and even heart complications.
Kim Jong-un recently failed to appear for the celebration of his grandfather’s birthday on 15 April. This is one of the biggest events of the year, marking the birth of the nation’s founder.
Kim Jong-un has never missed this event – and it seemed very unlikely that he would simply choose not to turn up.
But the latest rumours have proved more worrying than most. Speculation over Kim’s health went into overdrive when a Seoul-based watchdog publication cited an anonymous source stating that the North Korean leader was in a grave condition after heart surgery.
Those who follow developments in North Korea say Kim is probably sick. The issue is the extent of any illness.
Inevitably, his absence prompted speculation and rumour, none of which is easy to substantiate.
Kim Jong-un last appeared in state media on 12 April “inspecting a pursuit assault plane group” in a handout that is undated. As ever, the images portrayed him as relaxed and at ease.
He chaired a key political meeting the day before, from state media despatches. But he has not been seen since.
The claim about Mr Kim Jong-un’s ill health first surfaced in a report for a website run by North Korean defectors earlier this month.
An anonymous source told the Daily NK that they understood he had been struggling with cardiovascular problems since last August “but it worsened after repeated visits to Mount Paektu”.
“I think he is recovering from something,” said Cheehyung Harrison Kim, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who researches North Korea. “His health was always somewhat questionable and he may have gotten treatment … There are very few reports of him appearing in public in the past two weeks, and the news is usually filled with Kim Jong Un making on-site visits and so forth.”
Peter Ward, a researcher on the North Korean economy and a columnist at NK News website, says there is little sign of Kim being seriously ill.
“I think that he is indeed sick, but how sick he is, I don’t know,” Ward said. “There is little evidence that something is critically wrong. If something was critically wrong, we’d see more movement on the ground from space – planes, cars, the military might be on high alert as well. The state would have to go into emergency mode. But we’re not seeing that.”