North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his first public appearance in 20 days, ending an absence that sparked global speculation about his health.
The Central Korean News Agency (KCNA) reported on Saturday that Kim attended a ceremony marking the completion of a fertilizer plant in Suncheon, near the capital Pyongyang, with other senior officials, including his sister Kim Yo Jong.
KCNA said Kim he cut a ribbon at the ceremony on Friday and the gifts "burst into loud applause from" cheers! "to the supreme leader who commands the general march of all people for carrying out the great cause of prosperity".
Kim he was seen in photographs smiling and talking to aides at the ribbon cutting ceremony and also touring the factory.
The authenticity of the photos, published on the website of the official newspaper Rodong Sinmun, could not be verified.
State TV footage on Saturday showed Kim's leg movements looking stiff and abrupt and one of the images showed a green golf cart in the background, similar to the one he used in 2014 after a long public absence.
Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, said Kim's images suggest he is recovering from some kind of medical setback that affected his walk, possibly related to his ankle.
"Setting up tables and chairs on stage seemed a little rare for an outdoor occasion," Nam Seong-wook, a professor of North Korean studies at the University of Korea, said of the ceremony.
"Kim may have some physical conditions that prevent him from staying long and he needs to sit after standing for a while."
Rumors about the North Korean leader's health began to emerge after he missed his late grandfather Kim Il Sung's April 15 birthday celebration, the country's most important holiday, for the first time since he took power in 2011 .
Nam said that if Kim is unable to stand for long periods, perhaps that is why he did not attend the birthday event in April at the Kumsusan Sun Palace, where he would have to stay for at least an hour.
Asked about the news, US President Donald Trump said: "I prefer not to comment yet."
South Korea's Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who oversees involvement with Pyongyang, said it was plausible that Kim was absent as a precaution against the coronavirus pandemic.
As in previous public appearances during the global coronavirus pandemic, Kim and his entourage were not wearing masks, unlike the crowd of workers at the ceremony.
North Korea insisted it saw no cases of coronavirus, although experts say this is unlikely.
Analysts said Kim could not appear in public wearing a mask as it would make him appear vulnerable to the North Korean people.
"The most likely explanation for Kim's absence is that North Korea declares the coronavirus pandemic an existential threat … he was probably taking steps to ensure his health or may have been affected in some way personally by the virus," he said. . Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Center for National Interest think tank in Washington, DC.
Analysis: Where is North Korea's Kim Jong Un?
State media previously reported that Kim was carrying out routine activities outside public opinion, such as sending greetings to the leaders of Syria, Cuba and South Africa and expressing gratitude to workers who built tourist facilities in the coastal city of Wonsan, where some speculated that he was hosted. .
& # 39; There are no unusual signs & # 39;
The Seoul unification ministry reacted to Saturday's report, saying "unsubstantiated" speculation about Kim had caused "unnecessary confusion", requiring more careful consideration in the future.
The South Korean government, which has a mixed record of tracking Pyongyang's ruling elite, underestimates speculation that Kim, believed to be 36, was in poor health after the surgery.
The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in said it had detected no unusual signs in North Korea or any emergency reaction from the country's military, party and cabinet. The agency said it believed Kim was still handling state affairs, but remained in an unspecified location outside Pyongyang.
Analysts say Kim's health may become a growing factor in the years to come: he is overweight, smokes and drinks, and has a family history of heart problems.
If he is suddenly unable to rule, some analysts said his sister, who is believed to be about four years younger than her brother, would be installed as a leader to continue the Pyongyang heredity dynasty that started after World War II.
But others question whether North Korea's elite members, mostly men in their 60s or 70s, would be able to accept a young, untested leader who lacks military credentials. Some predict collective leadership or violent power struggles.
After an unusually provocative run on missile and nuclear tests in 2017, Kim used the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea to start negotiations with Washington and Seoul later that year. This led to an amazing series of summits, with Kim and Trump meeting three times
But negotiations have failed in recent months due to differences in the exchange of relief measures and disarmament of sanctions, raising doubts about whether Kim would ever face an arsenal that he probably sees as his greatest guarantee of survival.
It was still unclear what caused Kim's absence in recent weeks. In 2014, Kim disappeared from the public eye for almost six weeks and then reappeared with a cane. South Korea's spy agency said he had a cyst removed from his ankle.
Former US diplomat in East Asia, Daniel Russel, said that the puzzle pieces of Kim & # 39;S's disappearance would take time to assemble.
His reappearance showed that official information about the well-being and whereabouts of a North Korean leader was well guarded, and rumors about him needed to be viewed with considerable skepticism, said Russel.
The rumors, however, served to focus attention on North Korea's succession plan, which "in a monarchical and cult-like dictatorship is fraught with risk, and the absence of a designated adult heir who takes many chances" , he added.
Analysts say Kim is likely to make another public appearance in the next few days, which will be released by state media.
But Pyongyang "probably does not explain Kim's recent absence, due to the secret of the leader's health and schedule," said Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul.
China, North Korea's main diplomatic ally and main supplier of trade and aid, wants to maintain the stability of its neighbor and avoid the possibility of an influx of refugees.
North Korea is "at the epicenter of an extremely tense security crisis", involving "a nuclear stalemate where tens of millions of lives are at stake," Henri Feron, senior member of the US Center for International Policy, told the agency. AFP news.
"This raises legitimate concerns about the domestic and international instability that his death could cause."