Seoul/New York: Kim Jong Un ended his almost three-week absence from public events with a factory visit, an appearance that will ease, but not end, concern about the stability of the North Korean regime and control of its nuclear arsenal.
Kim presided over a May Day ceremony to mark the completion of the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory northeast of the capital Pyongyang, the official Korean Central News Agency reported early Saturday. State media released photos showing the North Korean leader in a black Mao suit cutting a ribbon outside the facility, which non-proliferation experts say could be used to help produce fissile material for nuclear bombs.
U.S. President Donald Trump declined to comment on Kim’s reemergence besides telling reporters before heading to Camp David for the weekend that he “may” speak with the North Korean leader. “We’ll have something to say about it at the appropriate time,” Trump said.
The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in — who had helped mediate Trump’s first summit with Kim almost two years ago — said the appearance confirmed its statements that the North Korea leader had been governing as normal. “Today’s public activity is not anything special, and the office does not make much of it,” the presidential office said.
Although Kim had dropped out of state media for longer periods — including a six-week lull in 2014 — his absence from annual April 15 birthday celebrations for his late grandfather Kim Il Sung was unprecedented. Subsequent reports that Kim, 36, had undergone a cardiovascual procedure and that China had dispatched a medical team to help its neighbor and ally fed global speculation about his health and possible successors.
The stability of impoverished North Korea concerns not only China and its other immediate neighbors, but the world since a power vacuum would raise questions about who controls its estimated stockpile of 20-30 nuclear warheads. While Saturday’s state media reports should end debate about whether Kim is alive and in charge, they shed little light on whether he had had surgery, was avoiding the coronavirus, seeking global attention or other theories that had circulated.
“The deception and voluntary withholding of information for three weeks underscore just how much you can’t trust North Korea’s intentions,” said Soo Kim, a Rand Corp. policy analyst who specializes in Korean Peninsula issues. “If Kim had been well all this time, imagine the field day he must have had as he observed the world react to his non-appearance. It was a test that effectively helped him collect more data points on the outside world.”
During his visit to the fertilizer factory, Kim said the project demonstrated the country’s commitment to “self-reliance,” adding that his father and grandfather would be “greatly pleased.” “The supreme leader warmly acknowledged the builders and masses raising thunderous cheers,” the KCNA report said.
Kim was joined by several aides, one of whom appeared to be holding a slender white stick. Among those present were Premier Kim Jae Ryong, former Premier Pak Pong Ju and Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong, who has recently been the focus of speculation that she would take over from her brother in the event of his death. One photo showed her sitting by Kim Jong Un’s side.
The appearance was Kim’s second this year to the plant about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Pyongyang with a previous visit coming in January. The facility may have dual-use purposes for helping produce yellow-cake uranium, according to an April paper by Margaret Croy, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California.
Kim has overseen a record-breaking flurry of short-range ballistic-missile launches, after his second summit with Trump broke down in February last year without a deal. The region has been bracing for further provocations since Kim declared on Dec. 31 that his self-imposed freeze on more significant tests was over and that he would soon unveil a new strategic weapon.
The latest mystery about Kim exposed how little the outside world knows about what’s going on inside North Korea. Diplomats, journalists and non-proliferation experts were forced to scour anonymously sourced reports, unverified social media feeds and satellite photos for clues about the leader’s whereabouts.
North Korean state media rarely responds to overseas discussion about who’s in charge and the leader’s health is one of its most closely guarded secrets. It remains unclear why Kim was similarly absent for six weeks in 2014, only to emerge walking with the aid of a cane.
Cho Han-bum, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a state-run think tank under the Unification Ministry, said Kim’s re-emergence after skipping the events to celebrate his grandfather could be seen as a sign of his confidence and independence.
“Nobody knows why Kim has been out of sight, but what has become clearer is that he moves in accordance with his own timetable and is not swayed by the expectations by the external world,” Cho said. “He’s not showing up just to kill speculation about his health. He’s showing up because the fertilizer factory is one of the most important projects for him.” -Bloomberg