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U.S. monitors reports of North Korean leader's illness; South...

by Art Zox (2020-05-13)

By Hyonhee Shin and Mark Hosenball

SEOUL/WASHINGTON, April 21 (Reuters) - South Korean and Chinese officials and sources familiar with U.S. intelligence on Tuesday cast doubt on reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is gravely ill after a cardiovascular procedure even as the White House closely monitored the matter.

Daily NK, a Seoul-based speciality website, reported late on Monday that Kim, who is believed to be about 36, was recovering after undergoing the procedure on April 12. It cited one unnamed source in North Korea.

Two South Korean government officials rejected a subsequent CNN report citing an unnamed U.S. official saying that the United States was "monitoring intelligence" that Kim was in grave danger after surgery, but they did not elaborate on whether Kim might have undergone surgery.

South Korea's presidential Blue House said there were no unusual signs from North Korea.

Robert O'Brien, U.S. President Trump's national security adviser, told Fox News the White House is monitoring the reports "very closely."

Bloomberg News quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying the White House was told that Kim had taken a turn for the worse after the surgery.

However, authoritative U.S. sources familiar with U.S. intelligence questioned the report that Kim was in grave danger.

A Korea specialist working for the U.S. government said, "Any credible direct reporting having to do with Kim would be highly compartmented intelligence and unlikely to leak to the media."

Kim is a third-generation hereditary leader who rules North Korea with an iron fist, coming to power after his father Kim Jong Il died in 2011 from a heart attack. He is the sole commander of North Korea's nuclear arsenal, which Trump tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to give up in 2018 and 2019 summits.

Reporting from inside North Korea is notoriously difficult, especially on matters concerning its leadership, given tight controls on information. There have been past false reports regarding its leaders, but the fact Kim has no clear successor means any instability could present a major international risk.

Asked about how any North Korean political succession would work, O'Brien said, "The basic assumption would be maybe it would be someone in the family. But, again, it's too early to talk about that because we just don't know what condition Chairman Kim is in and we'll have to see how it plays out."

In recent years, Kim has launched a diplomatic offensive to promote himself as a world leader, holding three meetings with Trump, four with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and five with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China is North Korea's only major ally. Speaking to Reuters, an official at the Chinese Communist Party's International Liaison Department, which deals with North Korea, expressed the belief that Kim was not critically ill.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing was aware of reports about Kim's health, but said it does not know their source, without commenting on whether it has any information about the situation.

Daily NK said Kim was hospitalized on April 12, tour hồ ba bể hours before the cardiovascular procedure, as his health had deteriorated since August due to heavy smoking, obesity and overwork. It said he was now receiving treatment at a villa in the Mount Myohyang resort north of the capital Pyongyang.

"My understanding is that he had been struggling (with cardiovascular problems) since last August but it worsened after repeated visits to Mount Paektu," a source was quoted as saying, referring to the country's sacred mountain.

Kim took two well-publicized rides on a stallion on the mountain's snowy slopes in October and tour hồ ba bể December.

Speculation about Kim's health first arose due to his absence from the anniversary of the birthday of North Korea's founding father and Kim's grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.

North Korea's official KCNA news agency gave no indication of his whereabouts in routine dispatches on Tuesday, but said he had sent birthday gifts to prominent citizens.


Kim has sought to have international sanctions against his country eased, but has refused to give up his nuclear weapons. Trump has described Kim as a friend, but the unprecedented engagement by a U.S. president with a North Korean leader has failed to slow Kim's nuclear weapons and missile programs, which pose a threat to the United States.

Joseph Yun, a former U.S. envoy to North Korea under President Barack Obama and Trump, told Reuters he believes "something really is quite amiss, quite awry right now in North Korea."

"It's worrisome. If he's seriously ill and he dies, there is no succession plan," said Yun, who has since worked as a CNN analyst. "You could see a huge power struggle, people jockeying for position. Their lives would depend on it."

Yun said for all its secrecy, North Korea in recent years had been quick to respond to significant foreign news reports and it is noteworthy that it has stayed silent so far.

As for Kim's relationship with Trump and faltering efforts to get North Korea to denuclearize, Yun said, "That's pretty much put in doubt, not that it's been going anywhere anyway."

With no details known about his young children, analysts said his sister and loyalists could form a regency until a successor is old enough to take over.

Kim was the first North Korean leader to cross into South Korea to meet Moon in 2018. Both Koreas are technically still at war. The 1950-1953 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty. (Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Additional reporting by Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha in Seoul and Lisa Lambert, Susan Heavey, Steve Holland, Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Jack Kim, Michael Perry, Paul Simao and Will Dunham)