Kim Jong Un ‘alive and well,’ South Korean official says amid new reports North Korean leader is ill

WASHINGTON South Korean government officials tried again to quell persistent rumors that Kim Jong Un, the authoritarian leader of North Korea, is in poor health.

On Monday, South Korea’s unification minister, Kim Yeon-chul, told a closed-door forum in Seoul the government has “enough intelligence to confidently say that there are no unusual developments” in rival North Korea to corroborate speculation about Kim’s health.  

“Kim Jong Un is alive and well,” Chung-in Moon, foreign policy adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, told Fox News on Sunday. “He has been staying in the Wonsan area since April 13. No suspicious movements have so far been detected.”

North Korea is one of the world’s most secretive nations in the world and information about its repressive leader is extremely difficult to verify. 

“We know more about their nuclear weapons than we know about the health of the leadership,” Victor Cha, a North Korea expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said during a recent podcast on Kim’s health. “And because it’s only one leader of course, that’s the most carefully guarded secret in the country.

Speculation about Kim’s health began to swirl after the North Korea leader failed to attend the April 15 celebration of his grandfather’s birthday, an important national holiday that he had not previously missed since his rise to power in 2011.

Last week, a Seoul-based website called Daily NK reported that the North Korean leader had undergone heart surgery on April 12 and was recuperating at a villa outside the capital, Pyongyang. The Daily NK’s story was based on a single source inside North Korea. Other media outlets, including CNN, have reported that Kim’s health may be in “grave danger.”

The state-controlled North Korean media has been silent about Kim’s whereabouts in recent weeks. The state-run Korean Central News Agency released a photo of him, dated April 11, which it said shows Kim attending a politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang. However, neither the content nor the date of the photo could be independently verified.

“Even if something were seriously wrong, we would not know that immediately,” Sue Mi Terry, a former Korea analyst for the CIA, said during the CSIS podcast. The U.S. did not learn about the death of Kim’s father until two days later and then only because North Korea announced it, she said. 

Terry also said Kim is a heavy smoker who drinks heavily and has a family history of cardiac problems.   

“He’s 5’7” and reportedly about 300 pounds, so he’s clinically obese,” she said, noting Kim’s father and grandfather died of heart attacks.  

Both Cha and Terry said if Kim dies, it could create a power vacuum inside the country; he has not created a succession plan, although his sister, Kim Yo Jong, could rise to power.

Some media reports about North Korea and its leadership have previously turned out to be inaccurate. President Donald Trump said last week that he thought the CNN story was “inaccurate,” but he declined to comment further on what information the Trump administration has about Kim’s health status. 

“I hear the report was an incorrect report. I hope it was an incorrect report,” said Trump, who has met directly with Kim in an unsuccessful effort to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.

South Korea’s unification minister did not reveal the specific intelligence behind his conclusion that Kim is not ill, but he said it was reached after a thorough analysis.

38 North, a website that tracks developments in North Korea, reported that a train likely belonging to Kim has been parked at a railway station that services the leader’s Wonsan compound since at least April 21. North38 cited commercial satellite imagery and said the approximately 250-meter long train is reserved for use by the Kim family. 

“The train’s presence does not prove the whereabouts of the North Korean leader or indicate anything about his health, but it does lend weight to reports that Kim is staying at an elite area on the country’s eastern coast,” the website said.

Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard and the Associated Press