- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2020

South Korean officials pushed back Tuesday at reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had a heart operation and is at serious risk of dying, saying instead that there is “nothing unusual going on” in the North.

A report pushed Monday night by CNN that Mr. Kim was “in grave danger after a surgery” is “not true,” according to one South Korean official, who spoke on condition of anonymity about the rumor with the official Yonhap News Agency.

The South Korean news outlet separately cited Kang Min-seok, a spokesman for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, as saying “no unusual signs have been identified inside North Korea” and that “there is nothing we can confirm with regard to Chairman Kim’s alleged health problem.”

While sources have told The Washington Times that communications between South Korean and North Korean government officials are very limited at the moment amid stalled denuclearization talks, the government in Seoul is widely regarded as the premier source when it comes to evaluating rumors swirling about the notoriously secretive North.

The Times has so far not been able to confirm CNN’s claims about Mr. Kim’s status. There has also been little immediate comment on the situation from the Trump administration.

National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien told Fox News on Tuesday that U.S. officials are monitoring reports about Mr. Kim’s health “very closely.”

A CNN report Monday night came after the South Korean internet news outlet Daily NK, which focuses on news about North Korea, had first reported that Mr. Kim was receiving medical treatment following a heart procedure.

The unconfirmed reports were apparently fueled initially by Mr. Kim’s rare absence from national festivities on April 15 celebrating the birthday of his grandfather and former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. Speculation often surfaces about North Korea’s leadership based on attendance at such important state events.

Rumors have also been elevated around the reality that the 36-year-old dictator is overweight and is a heavy smoker.

However, prior to missing the celebrations on April 15, Mr. Kim presided over a meeting on April 11, discussing coronavirus prevention and electing his sister as an alternate member of the political bureau of the ruling Workers’ Party, according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.

State media have since reported Mr. Kim sent greetings to Syrian President Bashar Assad and Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel as well as “birthday spreads” to two North Korean officials and a new centenarian.

Officials in China, which is a close ally to North Korea, have downplayed rumors about Mr. Kim. An official with the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department told Reuters they do not believe the North Korean leader is “critically ill.”

The South Korean president’s office separately said Tuesday that Mr. Kim is believed to be staying at an unspecified location outside of Pyongyang with some of his close confidants. It said the North Korean leader appeared to be normally engaged with state affairs and there weren’t any unusual movements or emergency reactions from the North’s ruling party, military or Cabinet.

The Associated Press cited a U.S. official as saying the White House was aware before the reports appeared late Monday that Mr. Kim’s health might be precarious. The official said the U.S. had information that Mr. Kim may have undergone surgery and that complications may have rendered him “incapacitated or worse.” But the official stressed that the U.S. had nothing to confirm the surgery had taken place or that any complications had occurred.

The AP said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, would not elaborate on where the information came from or when it had been received.

Yonhap, meanwhile, cited a key member of South Korean parliament as raising the possibility that something unusual may indeed be afoot with regard to Mr. Kim’s health.

Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun, who chairs the South Korean National Assembly’s foreign affairs committee, said Mr. Kim appears to have undergone heart-related surgery, citing multiple unspecified sources.

“Some informed sources say that [Mr. Kim] had an ankle surgery; some claim that he is under quarantine … due to COVID-19,” Mr. Yoon told reporters. “There also are those who say that Kim underwent a cardiovascular procedure but that he is not in as serious of a condition [as reported].”

Victor Morton and Lauren Meier contributed to this story.

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