North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has ended a month-long absence from public view as he appeared at a meeting of the country’s political bureau on Thursday.
Kim, thought to be 36, used the meeting to praise North Korea’s ‘shining success’ in fighting coronavirus as the Hermit Kingdom continues to deny having a single case.
The meeting comes after Japan’s defence minister reignited the debate over Kim’s health last week, saying he has ‘some suspicions’ that the despot is ill.
Kim has now been seen just eight times in public since April, having been seen an average of 46 times in the same period since taking power in 2011.
He was last seen at another bureau meeting on June 8.
Kim Jong-un led a meeting of the country’s political bureau on Thursday, marking the first time he has been seen in public in a month
A mark on Kim’s right wrist, which some observers have suggested could have been left by a needle used to inset a heart stent, was still visible in images released Thursday (pictured)
Taro Kono said on Thursday last week that Japan has observed the dictator making ‘unusual movements’ as he has travelled around the country.
Mr Kono speculated that this could be due to Kim trying to avoid catching coronavirus, which observers believe has been spreading widely in North Korea for some time despite official denials.
But he refused to elaborate further, saying he is ‘not allowed to discuss intelligence issues’.
Rumours about Kim’s health first began swirling when he missed Day of the Sun celebrations to mark his grandfather’s birthday on April 15.
No North Korean leader has ever missed the event, as Kim Il-sung is considered to be the country’s ‘eternal president’ – despite dying in 1994.
He reappeared three weeks later at the opening of a fertilizer factory, though slight differences in his appearance led some to speculate he was using a body double.
Among then was a spot on his right wrist, which experts suggested could also be a ‘needle mark’ left behind after surgeons inserted a stent – which is typically used to treat a heart attack.
The mark was still visible in new images released on Thursday.
His sister, Kim Yo-jong, has also been taking an increasingly public role in North Korea’s affairs – including giving the order to blow up an inter-Korean liaison office with the South last month.
That has led to speculation that she is being groomed for leadership, should her elder brother die.
Kim has now been seen just eight times since April, having appeared an average of 46 times in the same period since taking power in 2011 – amid persistent rumours he is ill
Japan last week renewed speculation about Kim’s health last week, with defence minister Taro Kono saying he has ‘some suspicions’ that the dictator is ill
Kim is thought to have three children, but none of them old enough to hold a leadership position.
State media said that Kim used the meeting to urge officials to stay vigilant in the fight against coronavirus, warning of an ‘unimaginable and irretrievable crisis’ if they become complacent.
But he also praised vigilance which he claimed has so-far ‘thoroughly prevented the inroad of the malignant virus’ despite the worldwide health crisis.
Describing its anti-virus efforts as a ‘matter of national existence,’ North Korea earlier this year shut down nearly all cross-border traffic, banned tourists and mobilized health workers to quarantine anyone with symptoms.
Experts say the country’s self-imposed lockdown is hurting an economy already battered by stringent U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile programs.
The KCNA report said Kim during the politburo meeting of the Workers’ Party ‘stressed the need to maintain maximum alert without a slight self-complacence or relaxation’ as the virus continues to spread in neighboring countries.
The agency said Kim sharply criticized inattentiveness among officials and violations of emergency anti-virus rules and warned that a ‘hasty relief of anti-epidemic measures will result in unimaginable and irretrievable crisis.’
The North’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper published several photos of Kim at the meeting, which were the first state media images of him in weeks. Neither Kim nor the ruling party officials who participated were wearing masks.
Kim’s statement suggests North Korea’s full border closure with China, its biggest trading partner and economic pipeline, will likely continue despite the toll that is taking on the already heavily sanctioned economy.
Kim used the meeting to praise North Korea’s ‘shining success’ in fighting coronavirus, but warned that complacency risks an ‘unimaginable and irretrievable crisis’
According to Chinese data, the North’s exports to China and imports from it both plunged by more than 90% for two consecutive months in March and April.
In May, the North’s trade volume with China increased by about 164% from the month before, suggesting North Korea was trying to restore trade, the IBK Economic Research Institute said in a report.
Cho Hey-sil, a spokeswoman at the South Korean Unification Ministry, told reporters Friday that it remains to be seen whether North Korea’s trade with China will fully resume.
Even before the pandemic, North Korea was grappling with the pain of U.N. sanctions imposed over its nuclear program.
Its trade volume with China in 2019 was more than halved compared with 2016 figures, after new U.N. sanctions targeting the North’s major export items such as coal, textiles and seafood were adopted in recent years.
Kim was desperate to win sanctions relief when he engaged in a flurry of diplomacy with the United States, including three summits with President Donald Trump, in 2018 and 2019.
But those efforts have made little headway since the second Kim-Trump summit in Vietnam in February 2019 ended when Trump rejected Kim’s demands for extensive sanctions relief in return for partial denuclearization.
Last year, Kim launched an ambitious five-year national development plan, but experts say the coronavirus crisis likely thwarted some of his major economic goals.
Kim in December declared a ‘frontal breakthrough’ against the sanctions while urging his nation to stay resilient in the struggle for economic self-reliance.
In May, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers that panic buying had taken place in Pyongyang amid skyrocketing prices of imported food such as sugar and seasonings, before authorities clamped down on those cornering the market.
North Korea monitoring groups in Seoul recently said the price of rice and key commodities and foreign exchange rates in markets in Pyongyang remain stable.
Ahn Kyung-su, head of the Seoul-based private dprkhealth.org institute, which focuses on health issues in the North, said there could be Chinese aid shipments and unofficial bilateral trade taking place that isn’t reflected in official trade figures.