Flanked by missiles, North Korea’s Kim says U.S. and South Korea threaten peace

By Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha

SEOUL (Reuters) -Standing beside North Korea’s largest missiles, leader Kim Jong Un said his country’s weapons development is necessary in the face of hostile policies from the United States and a military buildup in South Korea, state media said on Tuesday.

Pyongyang was only increasing its military in self-defense and not to start a war, Kim said in a speech at the Defense Development Exhibition on Monday, North Korea’s official KCNA news agency reported.

Kim made his remarks standing next to a variety of weapons, including the country’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, the ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun showed. Among them was the Hwasong-16, North Korea’s largest ICBM, unveiled at a military parade in October 2020 but not yet test-fired.

“We are not discussing war with anyone, but rather to prevent war itself and to literally increase war deterrence for the protection of national sovereignty,” Kim said.

State television footage showed a smiling Kim clapping as shirtless soldiers use their hands to smash bricks placed on colleagues’ chests, as others cut chains wrapped around their bodies in a show of strength.

Kim also saluted jets leaving colored trails during an air show, while strolling through missiles on display.

A spokesperson for South Korea’s defense ministry said South Korean and U.S. intelligence agencies were analyzing the equipment displayed.

A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department reiterated that the U.S. goal was the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but that Washington “harbors no hostile intent” towards North Korea and is prepared to meet with it without preconditions for “serious and sustained diplomacy”.

“The United States has a vital interest in deterring the DPRK, defending against its provocations or uses of force, and in limiting the reach of its most dangerous weapons programs, and above all keeping the American people and our allies safe,” the spokesperson added, using the initials for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Pyongyang has said it is not interested in talks as long as Washington maintains policies such as sanctions and military activities in South Korea.

Washington’s assertions that it holds no hostile feelings toward North Korea were hard to believe in the face of its continued “wrong judgements and actions”, Kim said, without elaborating.

The two Koreas have been in an accelerating arms race, with both sides testing increasingly advanced short-range ballistic missiles and other hardware.

South Korea recently test fired its first submarine-launched ballistic missile, plans to build aircraft carriers and has bought American-made F-35 stealth fighters.

North Korea has pushed ahead with its missile program, and analysts say it has begun a major expansion of its main nuclear reactor, used to produce fuel for nuclear bombs.

South Korea’s national security adviser, Suh Hoon, was expected to meet his American counterpart, Jake Sullivan, in Washington on Tuesday to discuss North Korea.

Suh told reporters on Monday he planned to discuss South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s proposal for a formal end to the 1950-1953 Korean War and for possible easing of sanctions on North Korea, Yonhap news agency reported.

Last week the two Koreas restored their hotlines that North Korea severed months ago, with Pyongyang urging Seoul to step up efforts to improve relations after criticizing what it called double standards over weapons development.

Kim said Seoul’s “unrestricted and dangerous” efforts to strengthen its military were “destroying the military balance in the Korean peninsula and increasing military instability and danger”.

“Under the absurd pretext of suppressing our threats, South Korea has openly expressed its desire to gain an edge over us in military power on various occasions,” he added.

(Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Minwoo Park in Seoul and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Stephen Coates and Nick Macfie)

North Korea warns U.S. misinterpreting signals risks disappointment

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) -The sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned the United States on Tuesday not to seek comfort in comments by her brother as this would end in disappointment, while a U.S. envoy met South Korea’s president aiming to revive talks with North Korea.

Kim Yo Jong, who is also a senior official in North Korea’s ruling party, released a statement in state media saying the United States appeared to be interpreting signals from North Korea in the “wrong way.”

She was responding to U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who on Sunday said he saw as an “interesting signal” a recent speech by Kim Jong Un on preparing for both confrontation and diplomacy with the United States.

“It seems that the U.S. may interpret the situation in such a way as to seek a comfort for itself,” she said in the statement, carried by the North’s KCNA state news agency.

“The expectation, which they chose to harbor the wrong way, would plunge them into a greater disappointment.”

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been an intractable problem for Washington for years and in trying to change that, President Joe Biden’s administration conducted a review of policy and said it would seek “calibrated and practical” ways to persuade Pyongyang to denuclearize.

The U.S. special representative for North Korea, Sung Kim, has been visiting South Korea to meet senior officials, including President Moon Jae-in.

Moon told the U.S. envoy he would do his best to get inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea relations back on track and expressed hopes for progress toward denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula, his spokeswoman Park Kyung-mee said.

Sung Kim reaffirmed Biden’s support for meaningful inter-Korean dialogue and engagement and said he would “do his best for resumption of U.S.-North Korea talks”, Park said.

On Monday, Sung Kim said he was willing to meet the North Koreans “anywhere, anytime without preconditions” and that he looks forward to a “positive response soon.”

A U.S. official in Washington told Reuters the United States was aware of Kim Yo Jong’s comments and added: “Ultimately, we hope (North Korea) will respond positively to our outreach.

“We will continue to wait to see if these comments are followed up with any more direct communications about a potential path forward.”

The official, who did not want to be otherwise identified, said U.S. policy was not aimed at hostility, but “at solutions and ultimately achieving the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

“The United States is prepared to engage in diplomacy towards that ultimate objective, while working on practical measures that can help make progress along the way.”

‘CLEVER MOVE’

In a sign seen in South Korea as a positive U.S. gesture, the allies discussed scrapping a joint “working group” that analysts say Seoul has seen as an irritant in relations.

Sung Kim and his South Korean counterpart Noh Kyu-duk agreed to “look into terminating the working group,” while reinforcing coordination at other levels, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said.

The working group was set up in 2018 to help coordinate approaches to North Korea on issues such as denuclearization talks, humanitarian aid, sanctions enforcement and inter-Korean relations, amid a flurry of diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang at that time.

The Moon administration has made building ties with North Korea a top priority and a former aide to Moon told parliament last year the working group was seen as an obstacle to that.

“From a South Korean perspective, this was basically a mechanism for the U.S. to block inter-Korean projects during the Trump years,” said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea expert at King’s College London.

“It would be a clever political move for the Biden administration to end the group since consultation between Washington and Seoul will take place anyway.”

North Korea has rebuffed U.S. entreaties for diplomacy since Biden took over from Donald Trump, who had three summits with Kim, but failed to persuade him to give up his nuclear weapons.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Sangmi Cha in Seoul and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel and Howard Goller)

Biden does not intend to meet with North Korea’s Kim

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden does not intend to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the White House said on Monday.

Asked if Biden’s diplomatic approach to North Korea would include “sitting with President Kim Jong Un” as former President Donald Trump had done, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “I think his approach would be quite different and that is not his intention,” she said.

North Korea launched a new type of tactical short-range ballistic missile last week, prompting Washington to request a gathering of the U.N. Security Council’s (UNSC) sanctions committee, which then criticized the test.

Biden on Thursday said the United States remained open to diplomacy with North Korea despite the tests, but warned there would be responses if North Korea escalates matters.

North Korea on Saturday said the Biden administration had taken a wrong first step and revealed “deep-seated hostility” by criticizing what it called a self-defensive missile test.

Trump had three high-profile meetings with Kim, and exchanged a series of letters, but relations later grew frosty, and the nuclear-armed state said it would not engage further unless the United States dropped its hostile policies.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; writing by Andrea Shalal; editing by Chris Reese and Marguerita Choy)

Analysis: South Korea sees hope and threat in mixed message from North’s Kim

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean officials have seized on conciliatory comments by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the weekend as a sign that tension could be easing but also worry the huge number of rockets he showcased is evidence that peace may be elusive.

Kim sent mixed signals as he addressed an unprecedented night-time military parade early on Saturday, wishing the neighboring Koreas would “hold hands” again after the novel coronavirus pandemic is over.

While much of the world was captivated by the appearance of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), officials in South Korea were far more concerned by the display of new multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) and fast, maneuverable short-range missiles that would be ideal for striking targets in the South.

“The parade revealed not only an advanced ICBM but also MLRS that pose a direct threat to South Korea,” said South Korean opposition leader Kim Chong-in.

“They’ve not changed, their threats have grown even bigger.”

South Korean ruling party leader and former prime minister Lee Nak-yon said he took hope from Kim’s overture to the South as a “positive sign” but worried about what the display of new weapons said about North Korea’s intentions.

“North Korea showed advanced weapons including a new ICBM, which indicated it has not abandoned its resolve to develop weapons of mass destruction, and those weapons can threaten peace on the Korean peninsula,” Lee told a party meeting.

November’s U.S. election is compounding the uncertainty especially as the tone of ties between the two Koreas is often set by the state of North Korea’s relations with its old enemy the United States.

When a landmark summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 brought an unprecedented easing of tension between those two countries, North Korea’s dealings with South Korea also saw a remarkable thaw.

But relations on the peninsula have been tense since a second summit between Kim and Trump collapsed last year, and they took another blow last month when North Korean troops shot dead a South Korean fisheries official detained at sea.

‘CROCODILE TEARS’

Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in Seoul, said despite Kim’s conciliatory comments towards South Korea, his main message on Saturday was aimed at the United States.

“By showing a new ICBM, the North suggested they can test it any time if things don’t go well after the election. Inter-Korean ties don’t count to them,” Shin said.

The South Korean government said Kim’s speech would foster better ties but it urged North Korea to stick to agreements preventing armed clashes and accept a request for a joint investigation into the shooting of the fisheries official.

South Korean opposition leader Kim derided a teary display by Kim as he spoke of the sacrifices made by North Korea’s armed forces.

“It was appalling to see him shed crocodile tears after shooting our citizen to death,” he said.

Former South Korean nuclear negotiator Chun Yung-woo, pointing to North Korea’s extensive testing of MLRS and short-range missiles over the past year, while sticking to a moratorium on ICBM testing, said South Korea must not get carried away by hope for peace.

“All the media attention is on North Korea’s new strategic weapons but the most serious threat to our security is solid-fuel, short-range tactical missiles and MLRS that they’ve been madly testing over the past year,” Chun said.

“North Korea showed how it has focused on developing its capability to attack the South while our people have been absorbed in a peace campaign,” he said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Josh Smith, Robert Birsel)

North Korea accuses U.S. of hurting its image with cyber threat warning

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea accused the United States of smear tactics on Friday after Washington renewed accusations last month that Pyongyang was responsible for malicious cyber attacks.

It was the latest in a series of exchanges underscoring the friction between the two countries after denuclearization talks launched by U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stalled late last year.

“We want to make it clear that our country has nothing to do with the so-called ‘cyber threat’ that the U.S. is talking about,” North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in the statement.

It said Washington was trying to use the allegations as leverage, along with the issues of nuclear missiles and human rights as well as accusations of terrorism funding and money laundering. The aim was to “smear our country’s image and create a way to shake us up”, it said.

The U.S. State Department, Treasury, and Department of Homeland Security Issues, along with the FBI, issued a new warning last month about the threat of North Korean hackers, calling particular attention to financial services.

North Korea is alleged to be behind an ambitious, years-long campaign of digital theft, including siphoning cash from ATMs, stealing from major banks, extorting computer users worldwide, and hijacking digital currency exchanges.

Since 2006, the country has been subject to U.N. sanctions that have been strengthened by the Security Council over the years in a bid to cut off funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

This week, the U.S. Justice Department accused the country’s state-owned bank of evading U.S. sanctions laws and said it had charged 28 North Korean and five Chinese citizens in its latest crackdown on alleged sanctions violations.

(Reporting by Joyce Lee; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

North Korea’s Kim, in first appearance in weeks, vows to bolster nuclear ‘deterrence’

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hosted a meeting to discuss the country’s nuclear capabilities, state media said on Sunday, marking his first appearance in three weeks after a previous absence sparked global speculation about his health.

Ruling Workers’ Party officials wore face masks to greet Kim as he entered the meeting of the party’s powerful Central Military Commission, state television showed, but no one including Kim was seen wearing a mask during the meeting.

Amid stalled denuclearization talks with the United States, the meeting discussed measures to bolster North Korea’s armed forces and “reliably contain the persistent big or small military threats from the hostile forces,” state news agency KCNA said.

The meeting discussed “increasing the nuclear war deterrence of the country and putting the strategic armed forces on a high alert operation,” adopting “crucial measures for considerably increasing the firepower strike ability of the artillery pieces,” it said.

Kim has made an unusually small number of outings in the past two months, with his absence from a key anniversary prompting speculation about his condition, as Pyongyang has stepped up measures against the COVID-19 pandemic.

North Korea says it has no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but South Korea’s intelligence agency has said it cannot rule out that the North has had an outbreak. [L4N2CO0OL]

U.S.-led negotiations aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have made little progress since late last year, especially after a global battle on the virus began.

The Chinese government’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, expressed hope on Sunday that the United States and North Korea could resume meaningful dialogue as soon as possible, “and not squander away the hard-earned results of (previous) engagement.”

North Korea’s pledge to boost its nuclear capabilities coincides with news reports that the United States might conduct its first full-fledged nuclear test since 1992, noted Leif-Eric Easley, who teaches international studies at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul.

“The intention in Washington for pondering such a move may be to pressure Russia and China to improve arms-control commitments and enforcement,” Easley said. “But not only might this tack encourage more nuclear risk-taking by those countries, but it could also provide Pyongyang an excuse for its next provocation.”

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Richard Chang and William Mallard)

Ignorance, fear, whispers: North Korean defectors say contacts in the dark about Kim

By Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha

SEOUL (Reuters) – Defectors from North Korea say many of their relatives and contacts were unaware of the international speculation over leader Kim Jong Un’s health or were unwilling to discuss the issue in clandestine calls made from the South.

Two defectors told Reuters their relatives in North Korea did not know that Kim has been missing from public view for almost two weeks, said they didn’t want to discuss the issue, or abruptly hung up when the supreme leader was mentioned.

Kim’s health is a state secret in insular North Korea and speculation about him or his family can invite swift retribution.

Another defector said some people in the North have nevertheless been privately talking of Kim’s whereabouts after he failed to appear at a key state holiday on April 15, but only in very closed circles.

Kim’s absence from public ceremonies on the birth anniversary of his grandfather and founder of the country, Kim Il Sung, was unprecedented. That has led to days of speculation in the international community over his health and whether the nuclear-capable state was headed toward instability.

“I talked to my sister and my niece this morning and they had no clue about these reports and rumours about Kim Jong Un’s health,” Lee Soon-hee, 59, told Reuters on Monday. “When I told them, they were so cautious about discussing it. North Koreans have a very limited knowledge of these things.”

Lee defected to the South in 2009.

South Korean officials say they have not detected any “unusual movements” in North Korea, and one foreign resident living in Pyongyang told Reuters that life appeared to be going on as usual.

The South Korean minister in charge of North Korean affairs said on Tuesday fear of catching the coronavirus could have kept Kim away from the April 15 state ceremonies.

Kim Heung-kwang, who defected to South Korea in 2004 and now runs an academic group that researches North Korea, said he spoke to two contacts in North Korea about the speculation.

One, a government official, said that he had been wondering about Kim Jong Un’s lack of public appearances and had noticed an increase in calls from security officials to stay focused on internal policies, Kim Heung-kwang told Reuters.

Another person was not aware of the reports and warned him “not to be fooled by such lies,” Kim said.

Lim Hee-joo, a defector who runs a restaurant in Seoul, said almost no one in North Korea had any idea about Kim Jong Un’s health or whereabouts.

“Not even the people in the central party,” she said. “They are so scared that they don’t even think of looking into it or think about it, to begin with, as they fear they might get arrested.”

North Koreans are keenly aware they could face punishment for discussing the Kim family in any way except to shower them with glowing praise, said Sokeel Park, of Liberty in North Korea, a group that works with defectors.

“That doesn’t mean people don’t take that risk, some people do,” Park said. “But it’s still a super sensitive issue.”

“It’s a little like the pope not showing up for Christmas.” he said of Kim’s absence from the April 15 celebrations.

(Reporting by Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

South Korean officials caution against reports that North Korean leader Kim is ill

By Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean officials are emphasising that they have detected no unusual movements in North Korea and are cautioning against reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be ill or is being isolated because of coronavirus concerns.

At a closed-door forum on Sunday, South Korea’s Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who oversees engagement with the North, said the government has the intelligence capabilities to say with confidence that there were no indications of anything unusual.

Rumours and speculation over the North Korean leader’s health began after he failed to make a public appearance at a key state holiday on April 15, and has since remained out of sight.

South Korea media last week reported that Kim may have undergone cardiovascular surgery or was in isolation to avoid exposure to the coronavirus.

Unification Minister Kim cast doubt on the report of surgery, arguing that the hospital mentioned did not have the capabilities for such an operation.

Still, 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 Jong Un’s absence from the public eye suggests “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.

North Korea has said it has no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but some international experts have cast doubt on that claim.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in vowed on Monday to step up cooperation to help the North prevent the spread of the coronavirus but made no mention of Kim’s health or whereabouts.

“I will find a path for the most realistic and practical inter-Korean cooperation,” Moon told a meeting with senior aides, marking the second anniversary of his first summit with Kim.

“The COVID-19 crisis could mean a new opportunity for inter-Korean cooperation, and that’s the most urgent and pressing task.”

‘ALIVE AND WELL’

On Monday, North Korean state media once again showed no new photos of Kim nor reported on his whereabouts.

However, they did carry reports that he had sent a message of gratitude to workers building a tourist resort in Wonsan, an area where some South Korean media reports have said Kim may be staying.

“Our government position is firm,” Moon Chung-in, a top foreign policy adviser to South Korean President Moon, said in comments to U.S. news outlets.

“Kim Jong Un is alive and well. He has been staying in the Wonsan area since April 13. No suspicious movements have so far been detected.”

In Washington, a U.S. official appeared to back the South Korean government officials’ assessment about Kim as well as their admonition against speculation.

“That’s good advice. The media should take what they’re saying seriously,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters. However, he declined to elaborate on the U.S. view of Kim’s situation.

Kim Byung-kee, a former intelligence official and now a member of South Korea’s parliamentary intelligence committee, also urged caution on speculation and said there is little possibility that Kim is ill and he would make a “surprise comeback soon.”

Satellite images from last week showed a special train possibly belonging to Kim at Wonsan, lending weight to those reports, according to 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea monitoring project.

Although the group said it was probably the North Korean leader’s personal train, Reuters has not been able to confirm that independently, or whether he was in Wonsan.

A spokeswoman for the Unification Ministry said on Monday she had nothing to confirm when asked about reports that Kim was in Wonsan.

Last week, China dispatched a team to North Korea including medical experts to advise on Kim Jong Un, according to three people familiar with the situation.

Reuters was unable to immediately determine what the trip by the Chinese team signalled in terms of Kim’s health.

When asked about the Reuters’ report on the medical team, China’s foreign ministry said on Monday it has no information to offer on Kim.

On Friday, a South Korean source told Reuters their intelligence was that Kim Jong Un was alive and would likely make an appearance soon.

Experts have cautioned that Kim has disappeared from state media coverage before, and that gathering accurate information in North Korea is notoriously difficult.

North Korea’s state media last reported on Kim’s whereabouts when he presided over a meeting on April 11.

Kim, believed to be 36, vanished from state media for more than a month in 2014 and North Korean state TV later showed him walking with a limp.

(Reporting by Josh Smith, Sangmi Cha, and Hyonhee Shin, additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Michael Perry, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Jonathan Oatis)

North Korea media silent on Kim’s whereabouts as speculation on health rages

By Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean state media on Wednesday made no mention of leader Kim Jong Un’s health or whereabouts, a day after intense international speculation over his health was sparked by media reports he was gravely ill after a cardiovascular procedure.

North Korean media presented a business as usual image, carrying routine reporting of Kim’s achievements and publishing some of his older, or undated, comments on issues like the economy.

South Korean and Chinese officials and sources familiar with U.S. intelligence have cast doubt on South Korean and U.S. media reports that he was seriously sick, while the White House said it was closely monitoring the matter.

However, on Wednesday one U.S. government source who had previously played down reports that Kim was seriously ill said it was a possibility that was now being looked at closely.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who held unprecedented summits with Kim in 2018 and 2019 in an attempt to persuade him to give up his nuclear weapons, said on Tuesday the reports had not been confirmed and he did not put much credence in them.

“We’ll see how he does,” Trump told a White House news conference. “We don’t know if the reports are true.”

Speculation about Kim’s health first arose due to his absence from the anniversary of the birthday of North Korea’s founding father and Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.

On Wednesday, the main headlines from North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, included pieces on sports equipment, mulberry picking, and a meeting in Bangladesh to study North Korea’s “juche” or self-reliance ideology.

The official Rodong Sinmun newspaper carried older or undated remarks attributed to Kim in articles about the economy, the textile industry, city development, and other topics.

As usual Kim’s name was plastered all over the newspaper. But there were no reports on his whereabouts.

Official media has however continued to report the sending of routine diplomatic letters by Kim, and KCNA said he sent a reply on Wednesday to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, thanking him for a message to mark the birthday of the North Korean leader’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung.

South Korea’s presidential Blue House said it could not confirm Kim’s whereabouts, or whether he had undergone surgery. It said South Korea had detected no unusual activity in North Korea.

‘EXTENDED SILENCE IS UNUSUAL’

Daily NK, a Seoul-based website, reported late on Monday that Kim, who is believed to be about 36, was hospitalised on April 12, hours before the cardiovascular procedure.

The report’s English-language version carried a correction on Tuesday to say the report was based on a single unnamed source in North Korea, not multiple as it earlier stated.

It said his health had deteriorated since August due to heavy smoking, obesity and overwork, and he was now receiving treatment at a villa in the Mount Myohyang resort north of the capital Pyongyang.

“It does look like something is going on, based on the repeated absences of last week,” said Chad O’Carroll, CEO of the Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.

“A health issue seems to be the most logical explanation for all this, but whether or not it’s cardiac-related seems to be too early to tell.”

On Tuesday, CNN reported an unidentified U.S. official saying the United States was “monitoring intelligence” that Kim was in grave danger after surgery.

However, two South Korean government officials rejected the CNN report. China, North Korea’s only major ally, also dismissed the reports.

Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, told Fox News on Tuesday that the White House was monitoring the reports “very closely”.

“There’s lots of conjecture going around,” a senior Trump administration official said on condition of anonymity late on Tuesday when asked if there was confirmation of the reports.

North Korea experts have cautioned that hard facts about Kim’s condition are elusive but said his unprecedented absence from the celebrations for his grandfather’s birthday signalled that something may have gone awry.

Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean deputy ambassador to Britain who defected to South Korea in 2016, said state media’s extended silence was unusual because it had in the past been quick to dispel questions about the status of its leadership.

“Every time there is controversy about (Kim), North Korea would take action within days to show he is alive and well,” he said in a statement.

His absence from the April 15 anniversary ceremony, in particular, was “unprecedented”, Thae said.

Kim is a third-generation hereditary leader who rules North Korea with an iron fist, coming to power after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in 2011 from a heart attack.

(Reporting by Josh Smith, Sangmi Cha, and Hyonhee Shin; addtikonal repotrng by Mark Hosenball and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alistair Bell)

U.S. monitors reports of North Korean leader’s illness; South Korea, China doubtful

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean and Chinese officials on Tuesday cast doubt on reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is ill after media outlets said he had undergone a cardiovascular procedure and was in “grave danger,” while U.S. officials said they were closely monitoring the situation.

Daily NK, a Seoul-based speciality website, reported late on Monday, citing one unnamed source in North Korea, that Kim was recovering after undergoing the procedure on April 12. The North Korean leader is believed to be about 36.

Two South Korean government officials rejected an earlier CNN report citing an unnamed U.S. official saying the United States was “monitoring intelligence” that Kim was in grave danger after surgery but they did not elaborate on whether Kim had undergone surgery. South Korea’s presidential Blue House said there were no unusual signs coming from North Korea.

Bloomberg News separately quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying the White House was told that Kim had taken a turn for the worse after the surgery.

“We’re monitoring these reports very closely,” U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, told Fox News in an interview on Tuesday.

Asked about how any political succession would work in North Korea, O’Brien said, “The basic assumption would be maybe it would be someone in the family. But, again, it’s too early to talk about that because we just don’t know what condition Chairman Kim is in and we’ll have to see how it plays out.”

Kim is a third-generation hereditary leader who rules reclusive, nuclear-armed North Korea with an iron fist, holding the titles of head of state and commander in chief of the military since late 2011.

In recent years Kim has launched a diplomatic offensive to promote himself and his country as a world leader, holding three meetings with Trump, four with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and five with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Trump has described Kim as a friend but the unprecedented engagement by a U.S. president with a North Korean leader has failed to slow Kim’s nuclear weapons program, which now poses a threat to the United States.

Kim is the unquestioned leader of North Korea and the sole commander of its nuclear arsenal. He has no clear successor and any instability in the country could present a major international risk.

North Korea’s official KCNA news agency gave no indication of the whereabouts of Kim in routine dispatches on Tuesday, but said he had sent birthday gifts to prominent citizens.

Speaking to Reuters, an official at the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, which deals with North Korea, expressed the belief that Kim was not critically ill. China is North Korea’s only major ally.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing was aware of reports about Kim’s health, but said it does not know their source, without commenting on whether it has any information about the situation.

Daily NK said Kim had been hospitalized on April 12, just hours before the cardiovascular procedure, as his health had deteriorated since August due to heavy smoking, obesity and overwork. It said he was now receiving treatment at a villa in the Mount Myohyang resort north of the capital Pyongyang.

“My understanding is that he had been struggling (with cardiovascular problems) since last August but it worsened after repeated visits to Mount Paektu,” a source was quoted as saying, referring to the country’s sacred mountain.

Kim took two well-publicised rides on a stallion on the snowy slopes of the mountain in October and December.

Speculation about Kim’s health first arose due to his absence from the anniversary of the birthday of its founding father and Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.

KIM’S HEALTH KEY TO STABILITY

Authoritative U.S. sources familiar with internal U.S. government reporting on North Korea questioned the CNN report that Kim was in “grave danger”.

“Any credible direct reporting having to do with Kim would be highly compartmented intelligence and unlikely to leak to the media,” a Korea specialist working for the U.S. government said on condition of anonymity.

Reporting from inside North Korea is notoriously difficult, especially on matters concerning the country’s leadership, given tight controls on information. There have been false and conflicting reports in the past on matters related to its leaders.

Kim’s potential health issues could fuel uncertainty over the future of North Korea’s dynastic rule and stalled denuclearisation talks with the United States.

With no details known about his young children, analysts said his sister and loyalists could form a regency until a successor is old enough to take over.

Kim was the first North Korean leader to cross the border into South Korea to meet Moon in 2018. Both Koreas are technically still at war, as the Korean War of 1950-1953 ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

Kim has sought to have international sanctions against his country eased, but has refused to dismantle his nuclear weapons programme.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Additional reporting by Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha in Seoul and Lisa Lambert, Susan Heavey, Steve Holland and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Jack Kim, Michael Perry, Paul Simao and Will Dunham)