SEOUL: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a public appearance for the first time in three weeks to quash rumours that he was suffering from an illness or had died.
State television showed Kim walking, smiling broadly and smoking a cigarette at what the North said was the opening of a fertiliser factory on Friday in Sunchon, north of Pyongyang.
Rumours about Kim´s health have been swirling since his conspicuous no-show at April 15 celebrations for the birthday of his grandfather, the North´s founder — the most important day in the country´s political calendar.
His absence triggered a series of fevered rumours and unconfirmed reports over his condition, while the United States and South Korea insisted they had no information to believe any of the conjecture was true.
Seoul´s unification ministry reacted to Saturday´s report by saying “groundless” speculation about Kim had caused “unnecessary confusion”, calling for more careful consideration in future.
Kim´s sudden death would have left Pyongyang facing an unplanned succession for the first time in its history and raised unanswered questions over who would succeed him and take over the North´s nuclear arsenal.
China, the North´s key diplomatic ally and main provider of trade and aid, is keen to maintain stability in its neighbour and avoid the possibility of an influx of refugees.
North Korea is “at the epicentre of an extremely tense security crisis”, involving “a nuclear standoff where tens of millions of lives are at stake,” Henri Feron, Senior Fellow at the US Center for International Policy, told AFP.
“This raises legitimate concerns about the domestic and international instability that his death could cause.”
Footage showed Kim in his trademark black suit, waving to hundreds of workers who cheered his appearance and released balloons.
He was flanked by senior officials — including his sister and close adviser Kim Yo Jong — and showed no outward signs of ill health.
At one point Kim sat in front of a sign that described the event as a factory opening ceremony for May 1, 2020, but his appearance could not be independently verified.
As with previous public appearances during the global coronavirus pandemic, Kim and his entourage were not wearing masks, unlike the crowd of workers at the ceremony.
Analysts said Kim could not appear in public wearing a mask as it would make him appear vulnerable to the North Korean people.
The North has insisted that it has not seen a single case of coronavirus, although experts say that is unlikely.
Kim´s repeated appearances without a mask had led some to speculate that he may have caught the virus.
Reporting from inside the isolated North is notoriously difficult, especially on matters relating to its highly secretive leadership.