North Korea's absent Kim may be trying to avoid coronavirus: South Korean cabinet minister

Fear of catching the coronavirus could have kept North Korean leader Kim Jong-un away from state ceremonies for a key holiday in mid-April, a South Korean minister said on Tuesday as speculation swirled over Kim's whereabouts and health.

Speculation swirls over whereabouts and health of leader

This April 11 photo provided by the North Korean government shows the country's leader, Kim Jong-un, attending a politburo meeting of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang. His whereabouts haven't been reported since that date, prompting speculation about his location and health. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

Fear of catching the coronavirus could have kept North Korean leader Kim Jong-un away from state ceremonies for a key holiday in mid-April, a South Korean minister said on Tuesday as speculation swirled over Kim's whereabouts and health.

Under Kim Jong-un, North Korea has expanded its arsenal of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, and with no obvious successor, any change in leadership in the authoritarian country would raise concerns about instability that could impact other North Asian countries and the United States.

The speculation about Kim's health erupted after his unprecedented absence from ceremonies marking the April 15 birth anniversary of his grandfather and founder of the country, Kim Il-sung.

South Korea's Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who oversees engagement with the North, said it was plausible that Kim decided against attending because of the coronavirus, given the stringent steps his government has taken to head off an outbreak.

"It is true that he had never missed the anniversary for Kim II-sung's birthday since he took power, but many anniversary events including celebrations and a banquet had been cancelled because of coronavirus concerns," the unification minister told a parliamentary hearing.

South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, seen here in this March 2019 photograph, said today there were at least two instances since mid-January when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had been unsighted for nearly 20 days. (Kim Hong-Ji)

"I don't think that's particularly unusual given the current [coronavirus] situation," the minister said, though North Korea has said it has no confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

Reports of sending letters

The South Korean minister noted that there were at least two instances since mid-January when Kim Jong-un had been unsighted for nearly 20 days.

The last time official media in the secretive North Korean state reported on Kim's whereabouts was when he presided over a meeting on April 11, but there have been near-daily reports of him sending letters and diplomatic messages.

South Korean officials emphasize they have detected no unusual movements in North Korea and have cautioned against reports that Kim may be ill.

The unification minister described reports that Kim had undergone a heart procedure, and that a Chinese medical team had traveled to North Korea, as "fake news."

Citing three people familiar with the situation, Reuters reported on Saturday that China had dispatched a team to North Korea including medical experts to advise on Kim Jong-un, though it was unclear what the trip signalled in terms of Kim's health.

A U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Washington's view was largely in line with the South Korean minister's assessment.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday he has a good idea of how Kim Jong-un is doing and hopes he is fine, but would not elaborate.

On Tuesday, Trump was asked by a reporter about these comments and whether he thought Kim was still in control of North Korea and replied: "I don't want to comment on it. I just wish him well."

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he was aware of reports on Kim's health and he was paying close attention to developments.

Large events cancelled

North Korea had cancelled some large events and imposed a border lockdown and quarantine measures in an effort to prevent an outbreak of the coronavirus.

But if Kim Jong-un is hiding out because of fears surrounding COVID-19, it would "puncture a hole in the state media narrative of how this crisis has been perfectly managed," said Chad O'Carroll, CEO of Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.

"If he is merely trying to avoid infection, it should theoretically be very easy to release photos or videos of a healthy-looking Kim," he said.

An authoritative source familiar with U.S. intelligence reporting said on Monday it was entirely possible Kim had disappeared from public view to avoid exposure to COVID-19 and the sighting of his presidential train in the coastal resort area of Wonsan did suggest he may be there or have been there recently.

But the source said that since there was no authoritative backing for such a conclusion, U.S. agencies were also still considering the possibility Kim might be ill, even seriously.

38 North, a Washington-based North Korea monitoring project, said on Saturday that satellite images from last week showed a special train that was probably Kim's at Wonsan, lending weight to reports he had been spending time in the resort area.

On Tuesday, the website NK News said leisure boats often used by Kim off the coast of Wonsan had been active throughout this month, indicating his likely continued presence in the area.