North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un missed another national holiday on Saturday, fueling rumors and reports of his health. But U.S. intelligence sees no sign of unusual military activity that would suggest something amiss.
“Regional militaries in the Western Pacific and Asia, including those of our partner nations, remain at readiness levels consistent with historical norms,” a senior Pentagon official told Newsweek because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.
“We have observed no indications or received any additional information to make a conclusive assessment on the status of North Korean leadership or health of Kim Jong-un,” the official added. “We continue to monitor the situation.”
But Kim Jong Un, believed to be 36 and usually the center of his society, was still nowhere to be seen Saturday as his country commemorated Military Foundation Day. The Stimson Center’s 38 North monitor shared satellite imagery showing that a roughly 820-feet long train has appeared at the North Korean head of state’s compound in the west coast city of Wonsan in recent days.
The supreme leader has not appeared in public since his country’s closely-controlled media published photos of him two weeks ago attending aerial exercises and presiding over a politburo meeting of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee. His failure to appear days later at Day of the Sun celebrations dedicated to his grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung, first sparked speculation regarding his well-being that the official told Newsweek may not be unfounded.
“With the presence of the train and his absence from two major events, there is certainly credibility to report that KJU is either in a serious health condition or potentially deceased,” the official told Newsweek.
“Since he is perceived as a deity in NK, his death would instantly trigger nationwide indications, so there is potential that the government had delayed an announcement in order to have everything in place to maintain security across the country,” the official added.
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to Newsweek’s request for comment on Saturday.
Rumors of Kim Jong Un’s state have been fueled by unnamed sources speaking to outside media outlets. Daily NK, a South Korea-based site with ties to a U.S. Congress-funded think tank among other institutions, cited an anonymous individual in North Korea reporting Monday that Kim had undergone heart surgery and was recovering at a family villa near the Mount Myohyang hospital where he reportedly received treatment.
CNN later that same day cited a U.S. official saying intelligence was monitoring Kim was in grave danger after the alleged procedure.
On Tuesday, Newsweek cited two senior U.S. intelligence officials reporting Kim Jong Un’s last proof of life was April 18, but there were no major changes in the status of the country’s armed forces. One official called this “the biggest indicator” that something major may be occurring in the reclusive militarized state still technically at war Washington and Seoul since their 1950s conflict.
As conjecture mounted Friday following a Reuters report that Chinese doctors had been dispatched to advise on Kim’s health and a Hong Kong Satellite Television report claiming his demise, Newsweek again found no definitive evidence of upheaval in North Korea, citing a senior Pentagon official who continues to monitor the situation.
South Korea has also remained publicly skeptical, with unnamed officials telling Yonhap News Agency nothing appeared awry north of the world’s most heavily-fortified border and the Blue House reporting no unusual trends regarding North Korea or Kim Jong Un’s condition. Chinese and Russian officials questioned the media reports, as did President Donald Trump, the first sitting U.S. leader to meet a North Korean ruler.
The president told a Thursday press briefing he thought CNN’s report on Kim Jong Un’s health was “incorrect” but declined to provide details regarding his most recent contact with Pyongyang.
“We have a good relationship with North Korea, as good as you can have,” Trump told reporters at a press briefing Thursday. “I mean we have a good relationship with North Korea. I have a good relationship with Kim Jong Un and I hope he’s okay”
Trump and Kim Jong Un initially feuded throughout the heated year of 2017 but reversed course the following year, forging an unprecedented relationship in three high-profile meetings and exchanges of flattering lettersall in the name of a denuclearization-for-peace agreement that has yet to manifest. Lack of progress eventually eroded already fragile U.S.-North Korea ties, with Kim Jong Un threatening in January to debut a “new strategic weapon” after a year-end deadline passed without a deal.
With Kim Jong Un missing, however, issues of diplomacy and security remained uncertain. Transfer of power is a seemingly existential issue for North Korea, a country ruled by three generations of Kim since its founding in 1948. The death of Kim Il Sung was announced nearly a day and a half later, and authorities waited more than two days to reveal Kim Jong Il had passed away.
Both men, however, had heirs established years earlier. Kim Jong Un and wife Ri Sol Ju are not officially recognized to have children, despite outside media. His older brother Kim Jong Chol remains out of the spotlight, while his younger sister Kim Yo Jong has risen up the ranks of North Korea’s intensely hierarchicaland patriarchalpolitical system.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed Kim Yo Jong, who many have described as North Korea’s most powerful woman, in an interview Thursday with Fox News.
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“Well, I did have a chance to meet her a couple of times, but the challenge remains the same. The goal remains unchanged,” Pompeo said. “Whoever is leading North Korea, we want them to give up their nuclear program, we want them to join the league of nations, and we want a brighter future for the North Korean people. But they’ve got to denuclearize, and we’ve got to do so in a way that we can verify. That’s true no matter who is leading North Korea.”
Other North Koreans in the spotlight include premier Kim Jae Ryong. The North Korean cabinet head conducted various on-site visits on Friday, offering his guidance on tree-planting and seemingly scolding miners for complaining about poor conditions and equipment.
On Saturday, the Korean Central News Agency and other government-run outlets focused on praising Kim Il Sung and his establishment of the anti-Japanese guerrilla units that eventually formed the basis of the modern North Korean military. Kelp was reaped off the country’s west coast, and the only news out of the ordinary was “abnormal weather phenomena” regarding temperature and rainfall across a country that remains silent on the fate of its young ruler.