South Korean officials told the nation’s Yonhap news agency on Tuesday a CNN report claiming North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was “in grave danger” were “not true” and that “nothing unusual” appeared to be happening in the communist country.
Yonhap also found no evidence of Kim enduring any medical hardships ongoing at North Korea’s embassy in Beijing and Chinese government sources told Reuters they, too, had no evidence of a medical emergency in Pyongyang.
Late Monday night, CNN – an American left-wing news network with a long history of publishing poorly-sourced or false news reports – published a story titled “U.S. Monitoring Intelligence that North Korean Leader Is in Grave Danger After Surgery.” The story cited anonymous officials “familiar” with news about Kim’s health who stated only that the U.S. government was concerned about Kim’s health.
“A second source familiar with the intelligence told CNN that the US has been closely monitoring reports on Kim’s health,” the outlet declared.
The Chinese coronavirus – a newly discovered pathogen that is particularly life-threatening to individuals with preexisting medical conditions – is currently fueling a pandemic that has killed at least 171,000 people. North Korea claims it has not identified any coronavirus cases within its borders despite being sandwiched between China, where the pandemic originated, and one of the most affected countries by it, South Korea.
Kim, believed to be in his mid-30s, is widely considered to be suffering from obesity. Some estimates put his body mass index (BMI) at 45. The high end of a healthy BMI ends at 25; anyone over 30 is considered “obese,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Kim is also believed to be a heavy smoker, a risk factor for coronavirus complications.
Kim would be a patient of particular concern if exposed to the Chinese coronavirus regardless of the veracity of CNN’s claim and, given his status as totalitarian ruler of a nuclear-armed country, the U.S. has an interest in monitoring his health at all times.
In addition to the CNN report, NBC News’ Katy Tur claimed that Kim was “brain dead,” according to unnamed sources. She apologized for the claim and deleted the claim on Twitter shortly after writing it.
Prior to these rumors, Daily NK, a website that reports citing anonymous sources within North Korea, had claimed that Kim had undergone heart surgery on April 12. An anonymous source claimed that Kim’s multiple visits to Mount Paektu, a volcano in the country the Kim regime touts as having holy significance, have caused health complications given Kim’s obesity. The website initially claimed it had multiple sources for this claim, but has since corrected itself to state, “a previous version of this article incorrectly referred to multiple sources for this story; this article is based on a single Daily NK source in North Korea.”
“There is nothing unusual going on in North Korea. It’s not true,” a Seoul government official told Yonhap on Tuesday. Yonhap also got a spokesman for President Moon Jae-in, Kang Min-seok, on the record to deny the report.
“No unusual signs have been identified inside North Korea,” Kang reportedly said. “There is nothing we can confirm with regard to Chairman Kim’s alleged health problem.”
Another official told Yonhap on background that Seoul has no evidence of “the alleged health problem.”
“North Korea’s Workers’ Party, the military, the cabinet are not showing any special moves, such as an emergency alert,” the source reportedly said.
Reuters similarly reported a lack of confirmation from both officials in South Korea and China. China’s Foreign Ministry went on the record as stating that Beijing was “aware” of the reports “but said it does not know their source.”
NK News, an outlet that monitors the repressive country, also published a report on Tuesday citing sources in the country who say they have no indication of any stress on the regime, but with the caveat that civilians in North Korea are often kept uninformed about news regarding their government, so any changes within North Korea following the reports are not to be expected.
Some in South Korea’s government did indicate that concern over Kim’s health was legitimate, however, though not specifically lending credence to claims he is recovering from surgery or “brain dead.” South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo cited Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean refugee who recently became a member of Seoul’s National Assembly, told the newspaper that he had intelligence that Kim’s health was “particularly not good,” without adding more detail.
JoongAng Ilbo noted similar rumors surfaced about Kim in 2014, resulting in no significant health event affecting North Korean politics:
This is also not the first time rumors have circulated about Kim, 36, being in ill health. In the fall of 2014, Kim was not seen in a public setting for almost 40 days, leading to gossip about his health. Kim later surfaced in a public setting supported by a cane, which South Korean intelligence later confirmed was owed to the removal of a cyst from his ankle.
Rumors that Kim has not been in Pyongyang since March began circulating that month, placing the dictator in the beachside resort town of Wonsan. Adding to concerns about his health is the fact he has not made any public appearances since April 11 and this weekend failed to appear at a ceremony honoring his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s most important holiday.