South Korea said it knows Kim Jong Un’s location as it continues to play down rumours that the North’s strongman leader is seriously ill or dead.
The South’s unification minister Kim Yeon-chul told lawmakers that ‘the government is aware of Kim Jong Un’s location,’ without explaining further.
The minister said Kim Jong Un may be lying low to avoid catching coronavirus and not because he is gravely ill.
Speculation over Kim’s health has become so stark that the US is scrambling five spy planes to monitor movements in North Korea, media in the South says.
Rumours have been swirling around the North Korean dictator since April 15, when he missed a Day of the Sun celebration honouring his grandfather Kim Il-sung.
Four US eavesdropping aircraft will try to intercept messages about the Supreme Leader and his health, while one ground surveillance plane will monitor for unusual troop movements.
South Korea has also deployed a spy aircraft over its northern neighbour, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported, despite Seoul’s insistence that Kim is alive and well.
Kim Yeon-chul, South Korea’s minister for North Korean affairs, continued to downplay rumours about Kim on Tuesday – saying he had likely disappeared to avoid catching coronavirus and not because he is currently ill.
Kim was last seen in public on April 11, presiding over a meeting of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party.
There have been reports that Kim had heart surgery and was subsequently critically ill or even dead, but none of these have been confirmed.
Off the back of those rumours, America has reportedly sent three Beechcraft RC-12 Guardrail planes and one EO-5C ‘Crazy Hawk’ to scout over North Korea.
Both types of aircraft are designed to intercept electronic communications.
The US has also sent a Northrop Grumman E-8 Joint STARS aircraft, which is used to collect imagery and track ground movements.
South Korea has also sent one aircraft though it is not clear what kind, a senior military source told Chosun Ilbo.
Kim’s name has continued appearing in the country’s state-run media but an absence of photos of the leader has led to suspicions mounting.
North Korea’s daily newspaper Rodong Sinmun routinely publishes photos of Kim going about his daily activities.
Kim’s last lengthy disappearance from public view came in October 2014, when he vanished for six weeks – believed to be while he had surgery on his ankle.
His current whereabouts are unknown, but satellite imagery showed his private train at his Wonsan compound as recently as April 23.
Kim uses the train to travel because he fears being assassinated while in the air.
North Korea has officially denied having any cases of coronavirus, but reports that have leaked from inside the country suggest officials have privately admitted to citizens that the disease is spreading there.
Earlier this month a defector who escaped across the border into China tested positive for the virus, all-but confirming its presence there.
With that in mind, Kim’s absence from major ceremonies should not be regarded as unusual, Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said today
‘It is true that he had never missed the anniversary for Kim Il Sung´s birthday since he took power, but many anniversary events including celebrations and a banquet had been cancelled because of coronavirus concerns,’ he said.
He said there were at least two instances since mid-January where Kim Jong Un was out of sight for nearly 20 days.