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Meanwhile Roy Calley, a journalist who has visited the country on a number of occasions has said he “still believes” Kim to be dead – or alternatively, locked in a power struggle with sister Kim Yo-jong if still alive, with him “not being in charge any more”. Mr Kono also claimed the North’s renewed aggression towards the South – including the destruction of a joint liaison office last week – was part of a deliberate strategy aimed at deflecting attention from the 36-year-old’s well-being – as well as suggesting the country HAS been hit by COVID-19, despite official denials.
Rumours about Kim’s health – centred on speculation that he had died, or was in a vegetative state, after botched heart surgery – swept the world after he failed to attempt a birthday celebration for Kim Il-sung, his grandfather and North Korea’s founder, on April 15.
Footage of him opening a fertiliser factory in Pyong Yang was eventually released by state media at the start of May in a bid to counter the claims – but sceptics pointed out there was no way of proving when this was shot.
Speaking at an English-language press briefing at the Japanese Foreign Correspondents Club yesterday, Mr Kono likewise suggested all was not well.
He said: “Recent movement in North Korea is quite strange. We suspect COVID-19 is spreading around North Korea and Kim Jong-un is trying not to get infected, so sometimes he doesn’t come out in public.
“We have some suspicion about his health.”
Recent weeks have seen a hardening of rhetoric towards Seoul, with Kim Yo-jong hinting military action was a possibility.
Referring to the blowing-up of the offices, in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, Mr Kono suggested the Hermit State was seeking to district the world from its own internal difficulties.
He said: “The harvest in North Korea last year was bad. The economy is not doing well.
“So Kim Jong-un needs some scapegoat so that his people will look outside North Korea.
“It could be that’s why they’re so hard on South Korea right now.”
Asked for his personal view of what was happening, he said: “I’m not allowed to discuss intelligence issues.”
However, he added: “The Commander of US forces in Korea also talked about that, he believes that COVID-19 is already inside North Korea.
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“I personally agree his view. We just need to estimate how widely it is spreading.”
Mr Calley, who chronicles his trips to North Korea in his book Look With Your Eyes and Tell The World, is on record as saying he believes the initial claims were correct – and has not changed his mind.
He told Express.co.uk: “I still believe he is dead and this is the only way the country knows how to deal with the handover of power.
“Having said that, if he is alive then there is a power battle taking place between him and his sister.
“She has made far more decisions above her standing recently and it’s almost like a good cop, bad cop scenario with him being the good. He appears to be reigning her in.
“Whatever, the country has history in drawn out power battles and it’s clear he isn’t in charge anymore, if he is still alive.
“She will almost certainly be named successor provided she avoids any familiar pitfalls that befall any opposition.”
A 38 North analysis published yesterday likewise suggested the pair may be at odds.
The website suggested Kim Jong-un had abruptly deferred – but not cancelled – a four-point military action plan against South Korea.
Referring to his sister, the analysis concludes: “With Kim Jong-un now upending a campaign in which she played a prominent role, and de-escalating the situation, it is unclear how this will affect her stature going forward.
“Does Kim Yo-jong come out of this situation more elevated than before? Does it undercut her authority, or does it make no difference to her position in the leadership?
“Only time will tell what role Kim Yo-jong will play in Pyongyang’s policy toward Seoul, and how far Kim Jong-un intends to promote his sister.”
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