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Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
Update at 1415 KST and 20:50 EST: this article has been updated to include a comment from South Korea’s unification ministry and a response from U.S. President Donald Trump.
Kim Jong Un was on Saturday reported to have attended a ribbon cutting event at the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory, in the North Korean leader’s first public appearance in state media in 21 days.
In an appearance which follows a storm of international media speculation about the whereabouts of the DPRK leader, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said he had conducted the inspection visit on Friday, to mark May 1’s International Labor Day.
Kim was joined by his sister, Kim Yo Jong, as well as top officials Kim Jae Ryong, Pak Pong Ju, Kim Dok Hun, Pak Thae Song, and Jo Yong Won, the report said.
The North Korean leader, who reportedly cut the ribbon at the ceremony, last visited the facility — which lies just 50 kilometers north of Pyongyang — in January.
Speaking at the opening of the factory, he hailed the project as the “first success” of last December’s 5th Plenary Meeting of 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and its goal of having the country “break through the barriers” imposed on it by sanctions and economic pressure.
“He set forth the tasks and ways for developing our chemical industry in a correct orientation as required by the new century including rebuilding and updating fertilizer factories as a whole, and building more chemical industrial bases,” KCNA reported.
The report, notably, made no mention of his health — the subject of substantial media speculation in recent weeks.
Photos of Kim Jong Un at the event did not show any immediate signs that the DPRK leader might be in particularly bad health, though they did show him standing in front of a golf cart — also seen following his extended disappearance from public view for health reasons in 2014.
The North Korean leader’s last appeared in public at a meeting of the country’s ruling party Politburo on April 11.
He was then notably absent at an event held to mark the 108th birthday of his grandfather, North Korea’s founding President Kim Il Sung — a first under his leadership.
Reports emerged several days after from the Seoul-based Daily NK outlet that the North Korean leader had undergone heart surgery, with an unnamed U.S. official later telling CNN that they were monitoring intelligence that Kim was in “grave danger.”
Those claims sparked a storm of online speculation about Kim’s health and whereabouts — and widespread concerns about North Korea’s lack of a clear succession structure should the DPRK leader pass away.
But while multiple media outlets had already declared Kim to have died last week, state media continued to report that the DPRK leader had been sending letters from his office — a sign, some experts told NK News, that he was still alive.
Satellite imagery analysed in separate reports by 38 North and NK News’s sister site NK Pro also appeared to confirm claims that he was alive and well, showing a train and a number of luxury boats frequently used by the leader in use in the area.
And while the U.S. had appeared reluctant to officially comment on the rumors, South Korean officials repeatedly insisted that nothing was amiss in the North and that the DPRK leader was staying near the east coast city of Wonsan.
South Korea’s Ministry of Unification on Saturday said Kim’s reappearance highlighted the importance of hard facts when dealing with Pyongyang.
“Recently, groundless information on North Korea caused unnecessary confusion and costs in the fields of economy, security, and society,” an official told NK News.
“It is necessary to access and approach information on North Korea in a discreet manner based on clear evidence.”
Responding to Kim’s reappearance on Twitter, U.S. President Donald Trump said he was “glad to see he is back, and well!”
Chris Green, a lecturer at the University of Leiden and a contributing analyst to NK News‘s sister site NK Pro, said that storm of speculation in recent days — fueled in large part by extensive media coverage of who might succeed Kim Jong Un — offered valuable lessons.
“It is easy to rain on the people who over-played their hand on this and ended up embroiled in rampant speculation, but much more productive to use it as an opportunity to learn where the proper expertise resides: those organisations with networks inside North Korea, a large handful of very well-informed defectors, and South Korean intelligence,” he said.
“Since the analytical community regularly pours scorn down on all three of those categories, this ought to be a salutary lesson.”
Additional reporting by Jeongmin Kim
Update at 1415 KST and 20:50 EST: this article has been updated to include a comment from South Korea's unification ministry and a response from U.S. President Donald Trump.
Kim Jong Un was on Saturday reported to have attended a ribbon cutting event at the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory, in the North Korean leader's first public appearance in state media in 21 days.