‘Kim Jong dead’ claims: Absence likely to be ‘health-related issue,’ says expert

However, a state-run newspaper has said the 36-year-old has lavished praise on North Korea’s propaganda department, various Government departments and other world leaders, in an apparent bid to scotch rumours about his health – and even claims he has died. Speculation about Kim’s health escalated dramatically after he was absent from birthday celebrations held to mark the birthday of Kim Il-sung, founder of the nation – and his grandfather – on April 15.

There were suggestions he was either dead as a result of heart surgery gone wrong, or in a vegetative state.

Satellite pictures published by the 38 North website showed Kim’s personal train at his residential complex at Wonsan, indicating he was staying there, with some suggesting he may have been lying low during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – even though, officially at least, North Korea has no cases.

Pictures released via state news agency KNCA on Friday evening showed Kim cutting a ribbon at the opening of a new factory, in an apparent attempt to prove his health – although sceptics were quick to point out there was no way of proving when the photos were taken.

My best bet would be some sort of health problem which made it necessary to avoid public appearances until now

Professor Steve Tsang

Neverthless, Professor Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), told Express.co.uk yesterday Kim’s low profile was no coincidence.

He said: “Something must have happened but we don’t know what.

“My best bet would be some sort of health problem which made it necessary to avoid public appearances until now.”

Prof Tsang believed the pictures were probably genuine.

He added: “We can’t be sure when they were taken, but the North Koreans know this would be carefully studied and if it were a deep fake, it’s likely to be found out fairly quickly.

“So I doubt that it’s a fake.”

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The Rodong Simnum subsequently claimed Kim has written to the North Korean propaganda department to praise its “powerful” work.

The report also suggested he had written to leaders including the presidents of Cuba (Miguel Diaz-Canel) and Zimbabwe (Emmerson Mnangagwa), plus two letters to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Additionally, he was said to have praised workers at a newly-built “utopia” town close to the city of Samjiyon, and sent birthday wishes to a centenarian in Hamhung.

Both US and South Korean intelligence services have suggested Kim is not dead, with the latter’s Blue House, residence of President Moon Jae-in, announcing today they did not believe Kim had undergone surgery.

US President Donald Trump, who now refers to Kim as a “friend” despite their caustic war of words over the internet in 2017, yesterday tweeted: “I, for one, am glad to see he is back, and well!”

The drama continued last night, with North and South Korea exchanged gunfire around the South’s guard post early on Sunday in a move which one analyst said proved Kim was still in control.

Multiple gunshots were fired from North Korea at 7.41am, with the South responded by firing two shots. No injuries were reported.

Choi Kang, vice president of the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, says the timing showed Kim was still in charge of the North Korean military.

He said: “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.

“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’.”

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