By JAMES GANT FOR MAILONLINE
United Kingdom — North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has made his first public appearance in 20 days, appearing to dispel rumors he has died.
The despot cut the ribbon at the opening of a fertilizer factory in Sunchon, state media reported, and released pictures supposedly showing the event.
Kim was seen smiling and talking to aides at the ceremony and also touring the plant, but the authenticity of the photos could not be verified.
The dictator was accompanied by several senior North Korean officials including his younger sister Kim Yo Jong, Korean Central News Agency said.
Asked about the KCNA report, US President Donald Trump said: ‘I’d rather not comment on it yet. We’ll have something to say about it at the appropriate time.’
Speculation about Kim’s health has been rife after he missed the birth anniversary celebrations of state founder Kim Il Sung on April 15.
The day is a major holiday in North Korea and Kim as leader usually pays a visit to the mausoleum where his grandfather lies in state.
Kim Jong-Un’s last known movements:
April 11 – The dictator presides over a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party committee of policymakers. His most recent public appearance
April 15 – Kim is absent from celebrations for North Korea’s founding father and Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung
April 21 – First reports surface claiming the dictator has received heart surgery from South Korean-based publication Daily NK
April 23 – Kim’s private train is spotted near his holiday resort in Wonsan on satellite images. It is at a station reserved for use by the Kim family, prompting rumors that he has travelled to the destination
April 23 – Chinese doctors reportedly arrive in North Korea around this time to treat the dictator. China is yet to confirm or deny the reports
May 1 – Pictures emerge of the dictator apparently at a fertilizer factory in Sunchon with his sister
He last made a public appearance on April 11 attending a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party politburo.
Following his absence from the anniversary, a South Korean news outlet specializing on the North reported Kim was recovering after undergoing a cardiovascular procedure.
A flurry of other unconfirmed reports about his condition and his whereabouts followed including from vice director of Hong Kong Satellite Television Shijian Xingzou who claimed he was dead. Officials in South Korea and the US were skeptical.
The former top US diplomat for East Asia Daniel Russel said the pieces of the puzzle of Kim’s disappearance would take time to assemble.
His reappearance showed authoritative information about the well-being and whereabouts of a North Korean leader were very closely guarded, and rumors about him needed to be regarded with considerable skepticism, Russel said.
The rumors had, however, served to focus attention on North Korea’s succession plan, which ‘in a monarchical and cult-like dictatorship is filled with risk, and the absence of a designated adult heir compounds that risk many times over,’ Russel said.
Earlier, a source familiar with US intelligence analyses and reporting said US agencies believed Kim was not ill and remained very much in power.
‘We think he’s still in charge,’ the source said on condition of anonymity. The source could not immediately confirm the KCNA report. The State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Experts have suggested that Kim’s sister Kim Yo-jong (pictured together in Pyongyang in September 2018) could be in line to succeed her brother if necessary.
South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who oversees engagement with Pyongyang, said it was plausible Kim was absent as a precaution over the coronavirus pandemic, in view of the stringent steps taken to head off an outbreak in the country.
Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest think tank in Washington, said this still could be the case.
He said: ‘The most likely explanation for Kim’s absence is with North Korea declaring the coronavirus pandemic an existential threat… he most likely was taking steps to ensure his health or may have been impacted in some way personally by the virus.’
In his appearance at the fertilizer factory, Kim expressed satisfaction about the production system and said the plant made a significant contribution to the progress of the country’s chemical industry and food production, KCNA said.
Memes surfaced across social media in the West today in response to the report that the dictator has been out and about.
One said ‘Kim Jong-Un with the best comeback of 2020’, while another posted a picture comparing the dictator to the wrestler the Undertaker. A man wrote ‘so Kim Jong-Un is alive and well’ above a picture of Spiderman looking unsure.
While another added ‘North Korean state media release photo of Kim Jong-Un’ with a picture a man being held up by two others. (ia/MailOnline)