North Korea's Kim keeps low public profile in May: analysts

Josh Smith
FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un takes part in a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has made an unusually small number of public appearances in the past two months, once again going three weeks without state media reporting his attendance at a public event, according to analysts.

Kim's low profile comes as North Korea imposes anti-coronavirus measures, although the country says it has no confirmed cases, and follows intense speculation about his health last month after he missed a key anniversary.

Kim has appeared publicly four times in April and so far in May, compared to 27 times in the same period last year.

Since coming to power in 2011, the previous fewest public appearances Kim has made during those months was 21 in 2017, according to a tally by Chad O'Carroll, CEO of Korea Risk Group, a Seoul-based organisation that tracks North Korea.

"This is not business as normal," he said in a post on Twitter this week.

As a leader with near-absolute power over North Korea's 25.5 million people, and access to a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons, Kim's health and whereabouts are often scrutinized by the international community for any signs of instability.

Information in North Korea is tightly controlled, however, and independently confirmed details on Kim are almost non-existent.

South Korean officials have said they believe Kim's limited public appearances may be precautions in the face of coronavirus concerns. North Korea has cancelled, postponed, or toned down many major public gatherings because the new coronavirus.

When asked about Kim's absences, South Korea's Unification Ministry said on Friday it is monitoring the situation, but noted Kim is often out of the public eye.

Citing an unnamed South Korean government official, JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported Kim may be carrying out his duties from a favoured villa in Wonsan, on the coast.

But the North Korean leader may also simply be focused on some of the domestic economic and political goals he outlined before the coronavirus crisis struck, said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former North Korea open source intelligence analyst in the U.S. government.

"COVID does remain a major concern for the country, but state media coverage of COVID has declined over the past month or so, so I don't seen regime's increased concern," she said.

Friday marks three weeks since state media last showed images of Kim attending a public event.

North Korean state media reported Kim attended the opening ceremony of a fertilizer plant on May 1. That appearance marked a reemergence for Kim, whose unprecedented absence from a major holiday on April 15 sparked weeks of international speculation over his health and whereabouts.

Since then, state media has carried a steady stream of stories on Kim sending or receiving letters and diplomatic correspondence, but have not shown him attending public events.

Kim's longest public absence was for 40 days in 2014. South Korea's spy agency later said Kim had undergone a medical procedure on his ankle during that time.


(Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)