Trump Says ‘We Don’t Know’ How Kim Jong Un Is Doing

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. President Donald Trump said he doesn’t know about Kim Jong Un’s health after American and South Korean officials gave differing accounts on the North Korean leader’s condition after he was conspicuously absent from a major celebration.

“I wish him well, we’ve had a good relationship,” Trump said Tuesday in response to a question about Kim at a White House. The U.S. president said “we don’t know” if the reports about Kim’s health deteriorating are true, adding that he might reach out to check on him.

Trump Says ‘We Don’t Know’ How Kim Jong Un Is Doing

U.S. officials said Monday they were told Kim was in critical condition after undergoing cardiovascular surgery last week and they were unsure of his current health. Meanwhile, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office said that Kim was conducting “normal activities” in a rural part of the country assisted by close aides and no special movements were detected.

Kim continued to be absent from North Korean state media as of Wednesday morning. Neither the state broadcaster nor the official Korean Central News Agency mentioned new public appearances by the leader, although they continued to publicize his messages to dignitaries around the world.

“I just hope he is doing fine,” Trump said. “I had a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un and that is to the benefit of the country. That is not a bad thing, that’s a good thing, and I would like to see him be well. We will see how he does. Again, I don’t know that the reports are true.”

Trump and Kim have gone from trading insults in 2017, when North Korea was testing nuclear weapons and missiles that could deliver them to the U.S., to striking up what Pyongyang officials describe as “mysteriously wonderful chemistry” after meeting three times since a summit in June 2018. Despite the unprecedented talks and the bonhomie between the two, there have been no indications that Kim has slowed down his production of weapons of mass destruction.

The health of Kim, overweight and a heavy smoker, is one of North Korea’s most closely guarded secrets, known by a handful of people in the inner circle of leadership. While North Korea had scaled down major events as it battles the coronavirus pandemic, speculation about Kim had been growing since his unprecedented absence from April 15 celebrations for the birthday of his grandfather and state founder Kim Il Sung, one of the biggest days on the country’s calendar.

Even the most well-informed North Korea experts find it hard to tell what’s happening in the secretive state. The Daily NK, a Seoul-based website that gathers information from informants inside the isolated nation, separately reported that Kim underwent a “cardiovascular surgical procedure” and was now mostly recovered.

“I do not trust such reports. If he has a serious health problem, only a handful of confidantes will know,” said Chun Yungwoo, a former South Korean envoy to international nuclear talks with North Korea. “Usually such a state secret cannot be leaked.”

Trump Says ‘We Don’t Know’ How Kim Jong Un Is Doing

North Korea’s state media reported on April 11 that Kim attended a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party. The next day it said he inspected a military unit, but didn’t reveal the date of that visit. There have been no state media reports since them on him at any event.

Kim has made 17 public appearances this year that were mentioned in state media -- at a pace of a little more than one a week -- South Korea’s Unification ministry said. That’s slightly down from 84 public appearances last year.

The Bloodline

He has been shown in state media in recent months appearing at military drills and riding a white horse on the country’s revered Mt. Paektu, where state propaganda says his grandfather used as a guerrilla base to fight Japanese colonial occupiers and his father was born.

Any leadership crisis in North Korea could have ramifications for regional stability, as well as for talks with the U.S. over the country’s nuclear arsenal. Kim, who took power in 2011 following his father’s 17-year reign, developed the capability to deliver a nuclear warhead to any part of the U.S. before engaging in direct talks with Trump over his arsenal and sanctions imposed on the state.

While there’s been little time for him to groom a successor, Kim raised the status of his younger sister Kim Yo Jong as a key player in the secretive state. She was thrust into the global spotlight when she served as envoy to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and became the first member of the immediate ruling family to visit Seoul.

“We can’t completely rule out his sister yet, although it would be unprecedented for their system causing much confusion because she’s a woman, but on the other hand, she’s part of the Mt. Paektu bloodline,” said Duyeon Kim, a senior adviser for Northeast Asia and Nuclear Policy at the International Crisis Group, referring to the mountain seen as the symbol of Kim family rule.

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