UPDATED at 9:21 p.m. EDT on 2020-05-01
North Korean state media reported that leader Kim Jong Un visited a factory north of Pyongyang Friday, in his first reported public appearance in three weeks, as rumors about his ill health that have swirled around social media have started seeping into his reclusive country.
North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Kim cut the tape at the ceremony marking the completion of Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory in Sunchon, north of Pyongyang, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
"All the participants broke into thunderous cheers of 'hurrah!' extending the greatest glory to the Supreme Leader who has brought about a new change in the development of Juche-based fertilizer industry and has led the grand revolutionary advance for strengthening self-supporting economy to a victory with his outstanding leadership," said KCNA.
Yonhap also quoted state radio in the North as saying Kim was accompanied by his sister Kim Yo Jong and other aides during the factory visit.
“Amid the celebratory music, our beloved and respected Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un appeared at the building completion ceremony and cut the ribbon himself,” the North Korea radio report said, according to Yonhap.
U.S. President Donald Trump was asked by reporters at the White House to comment on the KCNA reports on Kim's reappearance.
“I’d rather not comment on it yet,” said Trump, adding, “We’ll have something to say about it at the appropriate time.”
Reports did not initially carry any photos of Kim at the ribbon-cutting ceremony when they were published Friday afternoon, but photos were published later that evening.
The two state media reports, published early Saturday in North Korea, came as RFA’s sources in the country said that unverified news reports and rumors pointing to health troubles for the 36-year-old Kim were spreading rapidly in North Korean provinces near the border with China.
“These days, rumors about Kim Jong Un being on his deathbed are spreading rapidly among the people in the border area,” a resident of North Hamgyong province who requested anonymity to speak freely told RFA’s Korean Service Tuesday.
“They even say that he may have died. According to a story originating from the Chinese side of the border, Kim Jong Un died after he failed to recover from cardiovascular surgery,” the source said.
The rumors stem from speculation after Kim was nowhere to be seen on the “Day of the Sun”, the North Korean holiday that marks the April 15 birth anniversary of his grandfather, the nation’s founder Kim Il Sung.
“Usually in April, in preparation for the Day of the Sun, we organize a large-scale event to visit the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun [in Pyongyang], where the bodies of Kim Il Sung and [Kim Jong Il] are [laid to rest],” the source said.
“Kim Jong Un’s visit [to the mausoleum] is heavily promoted [in state media], but this year he did not show up,” the source added.
“The media have remained mum on what Kim Jong Un did instead of attending the event this year, and it’s making everyone curious,” the source added.
One of Kim’s usual duties for the month of April is to issue a set of instructions on how to handle major events and domestic problems, such as farming issues.
“But since mid-April there have been no instructions from the Supreme Leader,” said the source.
Outside of North Korea, rumors in mass and social media have ranged from saying he is ill, comatose, or even dead after a botched surgery for a cardiovascular condition. Other accounts had Kim holed up to avoid the COVID-19 epidemic.
“Not long ago, Chinese media reported that a senior official of the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign liaison department headed to North Korea with a medical team, so residents suspect that Kim Jong Un’s health is in critical condition,” said the source.
But it is impossible for residents to really know the truth about Kim Jong Un’s health status, according to another source who requested anonymity for safety reasons, from Ryanggang province.
“We can’t see or hear anything,” the second source told RFA.
“But most residents have heard stories about the Supreme Leader’s condition, which spread through China and is now becoming the global media’s biggest concern,” the second source said.
The rumors are even spreading among ordinary government officials in North Korea, who are in the dark about what is really going on, the second source said.
“Even the officials are busy gathering a piece of information here and another piece from there, because there is no way to confirm Kim Jong Un’s actual health condition,” the second source said.
“If stories about the ‘highest dignity’ are spreading this much, the security department or the party normally tries to strictly control residents,” the second source said, using an honorific term reserved for Kim.
“But the authorities do not even crack down on it these days,” the second source said.
The second source’s account appears to contradict a description by Jiro Ishimaru of the Japan-based Asia Press of a crackdown by the security department to stifle the rumors.
In Ryanggang province, at least, the authorities seem unconcerned with the rumors, the source said
“If the story about the ‘highest dignity’ circulates like this, they would normally hold a series of lecture sessions for residents or have Neighborhood Watch Unit meetings [to discourage their spread], or threaten that those who spread false stories would be charged with treason,” the second source said.
“However, no community or Neighborhood Watch Unit meeting has even been held yet.”
“Tales of Kim Jong Un’s condition began to spread first among residents of the border area who often come into contact with Chinese people, but now many people in the inland areas, including in Pyongyang must have heard them by now,” said the second source.
“The fact that Pyongyang is too quiet and the military is not moving at all despite the spread of such stories is also raising a lot of suspicions,” the second source added.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.