North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has made his first public appearance in three weeks at a large public ceremony to open a new fertilizer factory, North Korean state media reported Saturday.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Kim attended a ceremony marking the completion of a fertiliser factory in Suncheon, near the capital of Pyongyang, with other senior officials, including his sister, Kim Yo Jong.
State media released photos showing the North Korean leader in a black Mao suit cutting a ribbon outside the facility, which non-proliferation experts say could be used to help produce fissile material for nuclear bombs.
KCNA reported that Kim cut a ribbon at the event on Friday and those in attendance at the ceremony just north of the capital “burst into thunderous cheers of ‘hurrah!’ for the Supreme Leader who is commanding the all-people general march for accomplishing the great cause of prosperity.”
Kim’s absence from the public eye had fueled speculation he might have fallen ill or even died, although it is not unusual for him to be absent for similar periods.
Kim was last seen in public three weeks ago when he chaired a Workers’ Party meeting, leading to speculation about his demise.
Adding further fuel to the rumors was Kim’s non-appearance at the birthday celebrations of his grandfather and the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, on April 15, an event that marks the most important day in the North Korean political calendar.
Without publishing images, state media reported that Kim Jong Un was carrying out routine activities outside public view, such as sending greetings to the leaders of Syria, Cuba and South Africa and expressing gratitude to workers building tourist facilities in the coastal town of Wonsan, where some speculated he was staying.
U.S. President Donald Trump declined to comment on Kim’s reemergence besides telling reporters before heading to Camp David for the weekend that he “may” speak with the North Korean leader. “We’ll have something to say about it at the appropriate time,” Trump said.
South Korea’s government, which has a mixed record of tracking Pyongyang’s ruling elite, repeatedly downplayed speculation that Kim, believed to be 36, was in poor health following surgery.
The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in said it detected no unusual signs in North Korea or any emergency reaction by the country’s ruling party, military and cabinet. It said it believed Kim was still managing state affairs but staying at an unspecified location outside Pyongyang.
The first report that Kim was being treated for a heart complaint came on April 20, when the Seoul-based online media NK News reported that the North Korean leader had been admitted to the Hyangsan Medical Center, a state-of-the-art hospital set aside for members of the ruling Kim clan in North Pyongan province. Citing a source within the North, NK News — which is largely operated by defectors from the North — said Kim was convalescing at a nearby villa.
The reports indicated that Kim was responding well to the treatment but was still being monitored by medical staff.
The speculations about Kim’s health also raised questions about his possible successor, with some analysts suggesting that Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, was most suited to succeed her brother should anything happen to him.