About the Author
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
South Korea’s intelligence services have seen no indicators suggesting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently experienced health issues or underwent heart surgery, lawmakers told local press on Wednesday.
The assessment, provided by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) to a parliamentary intelligence committee, follows other parts of the South Korean government repeatedly insisting there was no cause for concern about Kim’s health in recent weeks.
South Korean lawmaker Kim Byeong-ki, who shared briefing information Wednesday with the press, said the NIS had seen no signs that Kim was ill.
“At the least there is no heart related health issue,” he said, adding that “experts say that, being the leader of North Korea, even if there were any sort of minor surgery [Kim] would have to take care of his health for around 4-5 weeks.”
The NIS did draw attention to Kim Jong Un’s decreased activities, however, describing his 17 public appearances of 2020 as being down 66% from the prior year’s average.
Kim’s high-profile absence from the April 15 anniversary events and reduced public appearances could likely be explained by his recent focus on domestic issues as well as the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, the NIS also reportedly told lawmakers.
When Kim was out of view during April, some observers suggested he might be keeping away from Pyongyang due to fears surrounding a possible outbreak of novel coronavirus there.
But when Kim reappeared in May 2-dated state media output in front of a large crowd of mask-clad citizens, many observers noticed that the senior figures surrounding him were not wearing masks.
“If Kim Jong Un had really been so anxious about COVID that he was prepared to self isolate in Wonsan and miss the Day of the Sun, I think it is unlikely that he would allow officials to approach him without face masks,” said John Everard, the UK’s former Ambassador to the DPRK.
“I think the COVID theory, never strong, is looking threadbare,” he continued.
It’s unclear on what basis the NIS reportedly drew lawmakers’ attention to this possibility, however, with another observer saying further information was needed.
“The NIS is probably correct in saying that Kim Jong Un did not suffer from a serious health crisis, but then it should present a more positive proof than a conclusion reached by logical reduction to stamp out the speculation for good,” said Dr. Go Myong-hyun of the Asan Institute in Seoul.
Aside from leadership issues, the NIS also allegedly said that the DPRK economy had been under growing strain because of the long-term COVID-19-related border closure and corresponding reduction in trade with China.
“It has been determined that as the border blockade extends to the long term, difficulties in North Korean daily life and economy have largely been aggravated [and] the price of condiments, sugar, etc. have risen sharply, as well as the U.S. Dollar rate,” lawmaker Kim told press.
“The number of open jangmadang (markets) has decreased and commercial activities have greatly decreased,” he added.
“Due to the price of imported foodstuffs, there has been panic buying of daily necessities by Pyongyang residents, as well as crowds of people lining up at department stores and shops,” Kim continued.
That chimes with a variety of recent NK News and NK Pro reports, which have drawn attention to long lines forming at some shops in Pyongyang, as well as significantly reduced DPRK-PRC grain trade data.
Overall, Christopher Green, a contributing analyst at NK News’s sister site NK Pro, said that the South Korean political canvas should be considered when understanding the latest spy agency assessment.
“In a sense it doesn’t matter whether the NIS has the capacity to know about the state of Kim’s health or not,” Green said, because “at the level of disseminating information to the public, the answers the NIS gives are political.”
“We would be extremely unwise to believe the NIS is providing an unbiased objective opinion,” he continued. “They are doing the policy work of the Moon administration.”
Colin Zwirko contributed translation assistance
Edited by Oliver Hotham
South Korea's intelligence services have seen no indicators suggesting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently experienced health issues or underwent heart surgery, lawmakers told local press on Wednesday.
The assessment, provided by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) to a parliamentary intelligence committee, follows other parts of the South Korean government repeatedly insisting there was no cause for concern about Kim's health in recent weeks.