North Korea’s state newspaper has reported that leader Kim Jong Un, who is not seen in public since April 19 has been writing letters of praise to other leaders and government departments, even as speculation continues that the 36-year-old is dead or otherwise incapacitated.
The Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported Friday that Kim had written to the North Korean propaganda department, praising its “powerful” work and its influence on the country’s citizens.
Kim missed the April 15 Day of the Sun celebrations, a key public holiday celebrating the life of national founder and Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung. Soon after, reports emerged suggesting that Kim had undergone heart surgery and perhaps even that there had been complications, leaving him dead or in a vegetative state.
North Korea is an intelligence black hole, and even for well-resourced and experienced agencies in South Korea and the U.S. it is difficult to ascertain what is really happening in the secretive country.
The North Korean regime has still not explicitly denied that Kim is in ill health, and state media has been diligently reporting that the leader is still sending and receiving letters. Such reports are a mainstay of North Korean media coverage, but during Kim’s absence they have taken on fresh importance as the only indication of Kim’s well-being or whereabouts.
Both U.S. and South Korean intelligence have suggested Kim is not dead. The South Korean government has been particularly confident—last week two cabinet ministers said there were no unusual signs from north of the border suggesting that Kim is in any danger.
Satellite photography published by the 38 North organization has captured Kim’s personal train parked near an exclusive complex on the country’s eastern coast, near the city of Wonsan where the dictator has a villa. Other images have also shown luxury boats in use near the villa.
U.S. intelligence and South Korean sources have suggested that Kim might have retreated to his villa to avoid the coronavirus pandemic.
Kim’s disappearance has prompted speculation as to the regime’s succession plans. His younger sister—Kim Yo Jong—is thought to be a leading candidate to replace the young dictator, though as a woman she may struggle to gain enough support to lead. Kim Yo Jong may also be part of some form of regency body to rule until one of Kim’s three children are old enough to take power.
As the world waits, Kim is reportedly still sending letters around the country and around the world. Rodong Sinmun has carried reports of letters praising workers at a newly-built “utopia” town near the northern city of Samjiyon and birthday wishes to a centenarian in the second city of Hamhung.
Kim’s well wishes have also been sent to the presidents of Cuba and Zimbabwe in his public absence, plus two letters to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.