That assessment was backed up by South Korean national security advisor Moon Chung-in who on Monday told CNN: “Kim Jong-un is alive and well.”
Yoon Sang-hyun, chairman of the foreign and unification committee in South Korea’s National Assembly, told a gathering of experts on Monday that Kim’s absence from the public eye suggested “he has not been working as normally”.
“There has not been any report showing he’s making policy decisions as usual since April 11, which leads us to assume that he is either sick or being isolated because of coronavirus concerns,” Yoon said.
Dr Leonid Petrov, an Australian National University academic who specialises in North Korea, said Kim’s no-show at his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s birthday on April 15 was circumstantial evidence of health problems, but was not proof of any significant deterioration. Kim Il-sung founded North Korea in 1948 and his birthday is one of the major events on the North Korean calendar.
“If everyone is social distancing and cancelling events why not North Korea?” said Petrov. “Kim understood that sooner or later maybe the coronavirus was going to reach there.”
There have been no official cases of COVID-19 reported in North Korea. North Korean defector and activist Yeonmi Park accused Kim of being “cowardly and selfish” while hiding out in fear of the coronavirus.
“Despite lying to the world that there is a zero case of coronavirus, it has been spreading uncontrollably within North Korea,” she said on Twitter on Monday. It was not possible for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age to independently verify Park’s claims about the spread of the coronavirus in North Korea.
Speculation about Kim, an obese heavy smoker with a history of cardiovascular disease, has prompted renewed interest in the regime’s succession plans.
Petrov said Kim was preparing sister Kim Yo-jong, who is her 30s, to take on more responsibilities.
Yoo Ho-yeol, an expert on North Korean studies at Korea University, said if she succeeded Kim, Yo-jong’s role will likely be limited to “a regent at most” due to North Korea’s feudal patriarchy.
“Not only the male-dominant leadership, but also ordinary people there would resist a female leader,” Yoo said.
That resistance could open the door to the return of Kim’s older brother Kim Jong-chul.
“According to Confucian tradition he would be more senior,” said Petrov. “But he has been seen as too feminine, too soft and too artistic.”
The middle of Kim Jong-il’s three sons, Jong-chul reportedly followed British rock star Eric Clapton on tours in Germany in 2006 and Britain in 2011 and has lived between Europe and Pyongyang.
Petrov said Jong-chul might be considered by the upper echelons of the North Korean military if it pursued communal leadership with Jong-chul as a puppet figurehead after Kim died.
“He might add legitimacy because the revolutionary blood is in his veins,” he said.
Kim’s health is expected to again come under scrutiny at three upcoming national events: Labour Day on May 1; Kim Jong-il’s graduation from university, on June 19; and the Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War, marking the separation of the North from the South, on July 27.
With Sanghee Liu and Bloomberg
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra