South Korea and China have played down speculation that Kim Jong-un is seriously ill, after a Seoul-based website reported that the North Korean leader had undergone heart surgery.
Daily NK claimed Kim, who has not been seen in public for 10 days, was being treated at a private villa following the procedure this month.
CNN, meanwhile, cited an anonymous US official as saying that Washington was “monitoring intelligence” suggesting that Kim was in “grave danger”.
But Kang Min-seok, a spokesman at South Korea’s presidential Blue House, said there was “nothing to confirm rumours about chairman Kim Jong-un’s health, and no special movement has been detected inside North Korea as of now”.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted an unnamed government official saying that reports Kim was seriously ill were “not true”.
An official at the Chinese Communist party’s international liaison department, which deals with North Korea, told Reuters there was no reason to believe Kim was critically ill.
Speculation about Kim’s health grew after he missed an event to mark the anniversary of the birth of his grandfather – and the country’s founder – Kim Il-sung, on 15 April.
Kim Jong-un underwent the procedure at a hospital in the county of Hyangsan on the country’s east coast on 12 April, according to the Daily NK, which is run mostly by North Korean defectors.
The 36-year-old was continuing to receive treatment at a villa at the Mount Kumgang resort, it added.
The report cited unnamed sources, and there has been no official comment from North Korean state media.
Kim’s health had deteriorated in recent months due to heavy smoking, obesity and overwork, Daily NK said.
“My understanding is that he had been struggling [with cardiovascular problems] since last August but it worsened after repeated visits to Mount Paektu,” it quoted a source as saying, referring to the country’s sacred mountain.
The state news agency, KCNA, released photos of Kim riding a large white horse through snowy fields and woods on Mount Paektu, the spiritual homeland of the Kim dynasty, in October last year.
A top White House adviser said on Tuesday that the US did not know what condition Kim was in. Asked about how political succession would work in North Korea, the national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said: “The basic assumption would be maybe it would be someone in the family. But, again, it’s too early to talk about that because we just don’t know what condition chairman Kim is in and we’ll have to see how it plays out.”
Daily NK claimed Kim had been admitted to hospital after chairing a meeting of the ruling workers’ party’s politburo on 11 April – this was his most recent public appearance.
He was absent when Pyongyang fired multiple short-range missiles last week and did not take part in low-key commemorations for Kim Il-sung’s anniversary, a national holiday known as the Day of the Sun.
Some observers speculated that Kim had been limiting his public appearances this month as a precaution against the coronavirus pandemic.
North Korea continues to insist that it has not discovered a single case of Covid-19, but experts and defectors have challenged those claims.
It is not the first time that Kim’s failure to appear in public has triggered speculation about his health.
In 2014, he dropped out of sight for nearly six weeks before reappearing with a cane. Days later, South Korea’s spy agency said he had undergone surgery to remove a cyst from his ankle.
North Korean state media took the rare step of admitting that he was suffering from an “uncomfortable physical condition”, after TV footage showed him with a pronounced limp and he failed to attend an important parliamentary session.
But the report did not address rumours that he was suffering from debilitating attacks of gout.
“No one knows what’s going on inside North Korea,” said Martyn Williams, who is affiliated with the 38 North research website.
“Kim Jong-il (Kim’s father) had been dead several days before it was announced and it took everyone by surprise,” Williams tweeted. “Kim Jong-un has been ‘missing’ before, and has always reappeared. That said, his absence this week was more notable.”
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