Coronavirus fear keeping North Korea’s Kim Jong Un hidden?

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

The fear of the coronavirus may have kept North Korean leader Kim Jong Un out of the public eye, a South Korean minister and the US intelligence sources said on Tuesday after widespread speculation and concern surrounding his death and health.

Kim’s unexpected absence from April 15 celebrations to mark the birthday of his late grandfather and founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, triggered the speculation that after undergoing a heart operation he might be ill. North Korea states that a single case of COVID-19 has yet to be detected, despite sharing a border with China, where the outbreak is suspected to begin.

Despite these recent reports, Kim Yeon-Chul, the South Korean unification minister, said it was natural to presume he had decided not to attend the event as a precaution. He had never skipped the anniversary of the birthday of Kim Il Sung since he came to power, but a few anniversary events including celebrations and a banquet had been cancelled amid concerns about coronavirus, the minister told a parliamentary hearing.

“Given the current (coronavirus) situation, I do not think this is particularly unusual,” the minister said.

The US officials told Reuters they thought Kim had taken his private train to Wonsan’s east coast resort town to shelter from the virus. Kim Yeon-Chul noted that at least two incidents had occurred since mid-January when Kim was not seen in public for nearly three weeks.

The North Korean leader was last seen in public on April 11, when he headed a meeting of the Politburo committee. State media have not since released an official photograph of Kim. Still, they have been carrying accounts of his everyday activities, including diplomatic messages sent to other world leaders.

In the early stages of the coronavirus spread, North Korea sealed its border with China, quarantined thousands of people and cut off public events. However, analysts are doubtful of the arguments of the government that the nation is virus-free.

Edwin Salvador, the representative of the World Health Organization (WHO) to North Korea, said last week that the nation stated that as of April 17, it had screened 740 people for COVID-19, but all of them were negative. The North said it has since late December released more than 25,000 people from quarantine.

A reporter asked Trump about these remarks on Tuesday, April 28 and whether he still thought Kim was in charge of North Korea and replied: “I don’t want to comment on it. I just wish him well.”

Trump has met Kim three times to convince him to abandon a nuclear arms program that is threatening both the US and its Asian neighbours. While the talks stalled, Trump continued to hail Kim as a friend.

Jiro Ishimaru, who runs the Asia Press website in Osaka and manages a network of North Korean citizen journalists, said confirmation that Kim was in isolation would show that the virus had spread within the country.

Ishimaru told the Guardian that it was possible for the regime to purposely send Kim’s train to Wonsan – realising that analysts would see satellite images – to offer the appearance that he was only taking a break while he was isolating himself elsewhere.

“Wonsan has all the attention, but there is a risk that he can trick everyone,” Ishimaru said.

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