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Rumors Spread After Kim Jong Un Misses His Grandfather's Birthday Celebration


The rumor mills have been in overdrive the last few days - rumors about the health of North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. He was injured in a cruise missile test. No, he had heart surgery. No, no, no, no, he's fine, just laying low, trying to dodge COVID-19 and so on. Well, to help sort through what we know and what we don't, here's NPR's Seoul bureau chief, Anthony Kuhn.

Hey, Anthony.


KELLY: When and why did these rumors start?

KUHN: Well, his last public appearance was on April 11, when he showed up for a meeting. And then on April 15, he missed the biggest date on the political calendar in North Korea, the Day of the Sun, which is the birthday of his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung. Then the Daily NK, which is a South Korean website that relies on a network of undercover journalists in North Korea, reported that he had had heart surgery. And since then, the South Korean press has come up with all sorts of scenarios, including the missile test and all these ones that you've heard of - but no sign of him.

KELLY: So do we know anything for sure? Is there any official statement coming from anywhere?

KUHN: Well, the latest from the South Korean government came from the minister of unification on Monday, who - he is in charge of inter-Korean relations. And he said that based on South Korea's intelligence, they can say with confidence that there are no unusual signs. They're not saying they've heard anything. They just don't know. They've also said they believe that he is in the coastal town of Wonsan. President Trump has said he believes that these reports are not true. Kim Jong Un is known to have health problems. He's known to be obese, and it's an issue of concern.

KELLY: Wow - worth noting, Anthony, this is not the first time this has happened, where he's disappeared from sight for a while.

KUHN: Yeah. That's the tricky thing. There have been both scenarios. He's disappeared and then popped up some time later. But then also, his father disappeared in 2011, and then people heard that he had died from North Korean state media. Intelligence agencies were caught completely off guard, so that's why people are taking the rumors with a grain of salt.

KELLY: Just 30 seconds or so left, Anthony, but if there were something wrong, what questions would that raise for regional stability?

KUHN: Well, governments, including the U.S., South Korea and China, all have contingency plans for regime collapse in North Korea. And they have to consider things like refugees leaving the country and loose nuclear weapons, which countries like the U.S. and China would then have to go in there and race to try to get under control.

KELLY: All right. Thank you, Anthony.

KUHN: You're welcome.

KELLY: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.