It takes huge news to break through the coronavirus headlines these days, so it was pretty shocking on Tuesday morning to see reports about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s health dominating the media. According to U.S. intelligence officials who spoke with CNN, the top levels of the U.S. government are monitoring reports that the reclusive dictator is in “grave danger” following some form of cardiovascular surgery in Pyongyang.
One reporter – MSNBC’s Katy Tur – even tweeted that her sources said Kim was “brain dead” or “in a coma” before hastily deleting the post.
While most reports are not going as far as Tur, the sheer secrecy of North Korea’s government/media apparatus makes it extremely difficult to parse fact from fiction in the Hermit Kingdom. All the same, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien confirmed that the White House was closely watching the situation unfold.
“We’re monitoring these reports very closely,” O’Brien said in a Fox News appearance. “North Korea is a very closed society. There’s not a free press there. They’re parsimonious with the information they provide about many things, including the health of Kim Jong Un.”
In a statement, South Korean officials cast doubts on the reports.
“We have no information to confirm regarding rumors about Chairman Kim Jong Un’s health issue that have been reported by some media outlets,” South Korean presidential spokesman Kang Min-seok said. “Also, no unusual developments have been detected inside North Korea.”
The office also said that they believe Kim to be staying outside of Pyongyang and is regularly interacting with others in the North Korean government. “It said Kim appeared to be normally engaged with state affairs and there wasn’t any unusual movement or emergency reaction from North Korea’s ruling party, military or Cabinet,” reported the Associated Press.
Rumors about Kim’s health surfaced on April 15, when the leader skipped out on the celebration of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, which is the nation’s most important annual holiday. Kim was last seen publicly on April 11 when he presided over a meeting about coronavirus protection.
This far from the first time that there has been widespread speculation about Kim Jong Un’s health. In 2014, the dictator largely vanished from the public eye for weeks, leading to many rumors about his stability, including some that concluded that he had died. He re-emerged, however, at the end of that period sporting a new cane. State media attributed Kim’s absence and limp to a surgery in which he had a cyst removed from his ankle.
Whether or not this disappearance will end so anticlimactically remains to be seen.