Intense speculation over Kim’s health was triggered when he missed the annual celebration of his grandfather’s birthday on April 15. This is one of the biggest in the country’s calendar, marking the birth of the nation’s founder and from which the North Korean leader has never before been absent. Thereafter, Kim Jong-un went missing for almost three weeks, before state television showed him opening a fertilizer plant in Sunchon on Friday.
During his absence there were countless reports of Kim’s death, with some suggesting that he had died after a botched heart operation.
A senior South Korean presidential official told reporters that as far as they were aware, Kim had not undergone any medical treatment, including surgery.
The official said: “Our assessment is that (Kim) did not undergo surgery.”
Asked if media reports of Kim having undergone a simple medical treatment were also untrue, the official simply said: “Yes.”
Claims about Kim’s ill health first surfaced in a report for a website run by North Korean defectors earlier in April.
An anonymous source told the Daily NK that they understood he had been struggling with cardiovascular problems since last August “but it worsened after repeated visits to Mount Paektu”.
The rumour mill then kicked into gear after a US media report claimed that the North Korean leader was in a critical condition after heart surgery.
Other reports said that the “supreme leader” was sheltering from the coronavirus pandemic at the sea resort of Wonsan, after his presidential yacht was spotted close by.
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The video released by state TV showed a smiling a Kim walking around and smoking, before cutting a red ribbon in the opening ceremony.
It failed to quell speculation about his health, as various media commentators commented that his walking looked a bit stiff.
On Sunday tensions between North and South Korea increased after both sides exchanged gunfire around a rural guard post.
Seoul’s military said shots from the North hit a guard post in the central border town of Cheorwan, located in the Demilitarized Buffer Zone (DMZ).
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South Korean soldiers returned fire and delivered a warning in reply, in the first such military confrontation between the two countries since 2017.
There were no reports of any injuries.
In a lengthy briefing held later on Sunday, an official at South Korea’s JCS said the gunshots did not seem a planned provocation.
The US-led UN Command, which oversees affairs in the heavily fortified DMZ, said it was working with the JCS to assess the situation.
“The UNC will conduct a thorough investigation tomorrow to determine if there was an Armistice Agreement violation, and will provide the report to the appropriate authorities once completed.”
Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said he believed the timing of the provocation shows it could have been planned to show that Kim was still in charge of the North Korean military
“Yesterday, Kim was trying to show he is perfectly healthy, and today, Kim is trying to mute all kinds of speculation that he may not have full control over the military,” Choi said.
He added: “Rather than going all the way by firing missiles and supervising a missile launch, Kim could be reminding us, ‘yes I’m healthy and I’m still in power’.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that he believed that the incident was “accidental”, as he tried to defuse tensions on the Korean peninsula.
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