International media havе been filled with reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is seriously ill. In reality, though, nothing is known about his condition.
This week, several unconfirmed reports indicated Kim, an overweight 36-year-old cigarette smoker with a history of health problems, had undergone a serious operation—possibly heart surgery.
The speculation came after Kim was mysteriously absent from a key North Korean political anniversary last week.
North Korean state media have stayed quiet on Kim’s whereabouts and health status, but also suggest he is conducting business as usual.
Timeline showing the key events surrounding Kim Jong Un’s absence:
April 11: Kim last appears in public at a meeting of North Korea's ruling party, where he called for a tougher response to the coronavirus. North Korea has insisted it has no coronavirus infections.
April 12: Kim skips a key session of North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly. A Seoul-based website would later report that Kim received heart surgery on this day. The report has not been confirmed.
April 14: North Korea conducts its latest round of short-range missile tests, according to South Korea. It’s not clear if Kim oversaw the tests, since North Korean state media never reported the launches—a departure from the norm.
April 15: Kim skips two major public celebrations on the birth anniversary of his late grandfather, the country’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung. Analysts say Kim would need a very good reason to skip what is essentially North Korea’s most important political holiday. However, state media report that flowers bearing Kim’s name were left at a memorial.
April 20: Pyongyang's showcase capital sees a surge in panic buying, especially of cleaning supplies and imported foods. The surge began Monday, according to a source in Pyongyang who spoke to VOA. The panic buying seemed related to coronavirus worries, the source added, citing rumors about an extended lockdown. The activity was first reported by NK News.
April 20: North Korean state media report Kim sent a birthday message to Cuba’s president. The brief report included no pictures or indication of Kim’s health. State media frequently report mundane diplomatic and other activities by Kim.
April 21: The Daily NK, a Seoul-based website with a network of sources in North Korea, reports Kim had heart surgery on April 12 and is recovering at a villa outside Pyongyang. Quoting a single, unnamed source, the report said Kim’s operation was due to “excessive smoking, obesity, and overwork.”
April 21: CNN reports the U.S. is “monitoring intelligence” suggesting Kim is in “grave danger” after undergoing unspecified surgery. The nature of the intelligence is not clear. Western countries have few, if any, intelligence assets in North Korea. Other U.S. media outlets, including Bloomberg and NBC News would later publish similar reports.
April 21: South Korea’s presidential office says it has detected no unusual activity in North Korea.
April 21: A senior South Korean foreign ministry official tells VOA that Seoul has no evidence to substantiate Kim has a health problem. "All we know at this point is that he did not show himself at the April 15 ceremony, and there must be a good reason for that," he said.
April 21: Asked about the reports on Kim's health, U.S. President Donald Trump says: “We don’t know … nobody’s confirmed that … when CNN comes out with a report, I don’t place too much credence in it.”
April 22: North Korean state media say Kim sent a message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The report did not include photos.
April 22: On Fox News, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the U.S. would like North Korea to denuclearize, regardless of who leads the country. Some analysts say Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, could take over if Kim died. Pompeo noted he has met Ms. Kim “a couple of times.”
April 23: Trump says he now believes the CNN report about Kim was incorrect. “I’m hearing they used old documents,” said Trump. “I think it was a fake report done by CNN.”
April 23: Pompeo tells Fox News he doesn’t have any new info to share about Kim, but he notes the U.S. is “watching the situation very keenly.”