South Korea downplays concerns over Kim Jong Un’s health

SEOUL: South Korean officials reported Tuesday that there was no unusual activity in North Korea following unconfirmed media reports that leader Kim Jong Un was in poor health after the surgery.
But possible high-level instability raised troubling questions about the future of a nuclear-armed state that has been constantly building an arsenal intended to threaten the United States amid stalled talks between Kim and United States President Donald Trump. .
South Korea's presidential office said Kim appeared to be handling state affairs as usual and had no information on rumors about his health. But many will be on the lookout for any signs of trouble in North Korea and whether to address the reports, something it has not yet done.
The United States and North Korea appeared to launch into war in 2017, and the countries exchanged insults and threats of destruction. The next two years saw an astonishing series of summits, including three between Kim and Trump, as Kim pursued diplomacy in hopes of ending crippling economic sanctions and obtaining security assurances. But despite everything, he maintained his right to a nuclear arsenal, and most diplomacy has since stalled.
Speculation often arises about North Korea's leadership based on attendance at major state events. Kim, who is in her 30s, missed the celebration of the birthday of her late grandfather and founder of the state, Kim Il Sung, on April 15, the country's most important holiday.
But she chaired a meeting on April 11, discussing coronavirus prevention and choosing her sister as a substitute member of the ruling Labor Party's political bureau, according to the official North Korean Central News Agency. Since then, state media has reported sending greetings to Syrian President Bashar Assad and Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, as well as organizing special birthday meals for two North Korean officials and a new centennial.
"We have no information to confirm the rumors about President Kim Jong Un's health problem that have been reported by some media outlets," South Korean presidential spokesman Kang Min-seok said. "Furthermore, no unusual developments have been detected within North Korea."
Later, the presidential office said Kim is believed to be staying in an unspecified location outside Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, with some close confidants. He said Kim appeared to be normally involved in state affairs and that there was no unusual movement or emergency reaction from the ruling, military or cabinet party of North Korea.
A US official said the White House was aware before reports appeared Monday night that Kim's health could be poor. The official said the United States had information that Kim may have undergone surgery and that complications could have left him "disabled or worse." But, the official emphasized that the United States had nothing to confirm that the surgery had taken place or that complications had occurred.
The US official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, did not elaborate on where the information came from or when it was received.
South Korean conservative lawmaker Yoon Sang-hyun, chairman of the National Assembly's unification and foreign affairs committee, said unspecified non-governmental sources told him that Kim had undergone surgery for cardiovascular problems. But an official with the Seoul National Intelligence Service, who declined to be named, citing the office's rules, said the spy agency was unable to confirm whether Kim underwent surgery.
It is unclear what would happen if Kim is sidelined due to health problems or dies. Even less than a decade after the Kim government, North Korea has yet to give any meaningful indication of who will succeed him as leader.
Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea, said that political unrest would be unlikely since Kim's sister Kim Yo Jong is already exerting significant influence within the government, and most of the members North Korean leadership share an interest with the Kim family in maintaining the North system.
However, Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean expert at Seoul Dongguk University and political adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, sees the possibility of a violent power struggle.
While Kim Yo Jong would likely emerge as a leader during a period of transition, other members of the upper elite might try to reduce her to a figurehead while making important decisions from the shadows, Koh said.
North Korea has seen similar power struggles that ended in bloody purges during its seven decades of Kim family rule. Kim Jong Un's 2013 execution of his uncle and mentor, Jang Song Thaek, accused of treason and corruption, was seen as an important step in consolidating his government.
Hong Min, a senior analyst at the Seoul National Unification Institute of Korea, said that North Korea once Kim is gone could be ruled by a collective elite leadership of the ruling party, similar to the post-Stalin Soviet Union. While it may be too early to seriously consider Kim's possible disappearance in light of his age, his alleged heart and other health problems could become ever-increasing factors in the years to come, Hong said.
Robert O & # 39; Brien, the United States' national security adviser, said the Trump administration is monitoring reports of Kim's health "very closely." O & # 39; Brien said Tuesday in a television interview with the Fox News Channel that North Korea is "parsimonious with the information they provide on many things, including the health of Kim Jong Un, so we are monitoring these developments closely." .
Kim In-chul, a spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry, said Seoul and Washington maintain close communication, but did not provide a direct response when asked if the allies shared any meaningful information about Kim's health.
Governments and external media have a mixed record of tracking developments among North Korea's ruling elite, made difficult by the North's tight control of information about them.
In 2016, the South Korean media quoted intelligence officials as saying that Kim Jong Un had executed a former military chief for corruption and other charges. But months later, North Korean state media showed Ri Yong Gil alive and serving in new senior positions.
Kim's absence from state media often triggers speculation. In 2014, he disappeared from the public eye for almost six weeks before reappearing with a cane. The South Korean spy agency said days later that a cyst had been removed from his ankle.
Kim took power after her father's death in December 2011 and is the third generation of her family to rule the country.

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