SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean and Chinese sources on Tuesday cast doubt on reports North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was gravely ill after media outlets said he had undergone a cardiovascular procedure in hospital and was in “grave danger”.
Daily NK, a Seoul-based speciality website, reported late on Monday citing one unnamed source in North Korea that Kim, age 36, was recovering after undergoing the procedure on April 12.
CNN cited a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the matter as saying Washington was “monitoring intelligence” that Kim was in grave danger after a surgery.
However, two South Korean government sources rejected the CNN report without elaborating on the surgery. The presidential Blue House said there were no unusual signs coming from the reclusive state building nuclear weapons.
An official at the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, which deals with North Korea, told Reuters the source did not believe Kim was critically ill.
South Korean shares exposed to North Korea tumbled and the Korean won KRW= fell on the reports. The won traded down more than 1% against the dollar even as South Korean government sources said Kim was not gravely ill.
Daily NK said Kim had been admitted to hospital on April 12, just 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 Kumgang resort county of Hyangsan on the east coast after undergoing the procedure.
“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.
An authoritative U.S. source familiar with internal U.S. government reporting on North Korea questioned the CNN report that Kim was in “grave danger”.
“Any credible direct reporting having to do with Kim would be highly compartmented intelligence and unlikely to leak to the media,” a Korea specialist working for the U.S. government said on condition of anonymity.
Kim’s potential health issues could fuel uncertainty over the future of the reclusive state’s dynastic rule and stalled denuclearisation talks with the United States, issues in which Kim wields absolute authority.
Speculation about Kim’s health first arose following his absence from the anniversary of the birthday of its founding father and Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.
On April 12, North Korean state media reported that Kim Jong Un had visited an airbase and observed drills by fighter jets and attack aircraft.
Two days later North Korea launched multiple short-range anti-ship cruise missiles into the sea and Sukhoi jets fired air-to-surface missiles as part of military exercises.
The missile launches were part of the celebrations for Kim’s grandfather, Seoul officials said, but there was no state media report on his attendance or the tests.
Reporting from inside North Korea is notoriously difficult, especially on matters concerning the country’s leadership, given tight controls on information.
Kim is a third-generation hereditary leader who rules North Korea with an iron-fist, taking over the titles of head of state and commander in chief of the military since late 2011.
In recent years Kim has launched a diplomatic offensive to promote both himself as a world leader and his hermit kingdom, holding three meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump, four with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and five with China’s President Xi Jinping.
He was the first North Korean leader to cross the border into South Korea to meet Moon in 2018. Both Korea’s are technically still at war, as the Korean War of 1950-53 ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.
Kim has sought to have international sanctions against his country eased, but has refused to dismantle his nuclear weapons programme, a steadfast demand by the United States.
Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Additional reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Jack Kim and Michael Perry