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South Korea plays down reports Kim Jong-un is near death

The Daily NK, a website run by North Korean defectors in Seoul, which maintains sources in the notoriously secretive regime, said excessive smoking, obesity, and overwork were the direct causes of Kim’s urgent treatment and that he had been struggling with cardiovascular disease since August last year. He was last seen in public on April 11.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in Canberra on Tuesday that he had not received any confirmation of the reports from Australian officials.

“Until these facts are more clearly determined, there is not really much I can offer,” he said.

Kim, 36, was unusually absent from celebrations for his grandfather Kim Il-sung on April 15, fuelling reports his health was deteriorating.

The anniversary of the North Korean founder’s birthday is one of the biggest events of the year for the communist country, which separated from the democratic South in 1953 after a three-year war.

The country has been ruled by the Kim dynasty ever since.

Concerns about Kim Jong-un’s health have prompted speculation about his successor. His sister Kim Yo-jong is considered the family’s most viable candidate if the country is to avoid a brutal power struggle between the regime’s top generals.

Kim Yo-jong, left, sister of the North Korean Leader, walks ahead of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un.

Kim Yo-jong, left, sister of the North Korean Leader, walks ahead of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un. Credit:AP

North Korean state media announced last week that Kim Yo-jong had been reinstated to her position as an alternate Politburo member of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.

She has become a public face of the regime in recent years, appearing as a guest at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, accompanying Kim to two summits with US President Donald Trump and delivering her first public political statement in March, accusing Seoul of being a “frightened dog barking.”

Like Kim, his sister, the youngest daughter of Kim Jong-il, was educated overseas before returning to help lead the regime with her brother after the dictator’s death.

Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korea expert at Tufts University in Massachusetts and a faculty associate with Harvard in Japan, said Kim Yo-jong could become the first female dictator in a communist system.

“If it happens, please refrain from saying she will reform and open her country just because she’s young, female and lived in Switzerland,” he said.

The Daily NK said Kim’s absence at his grandfather’s birthday may have been a special move to protect him against the coronavirus.

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North Korea is yet to declare any infections – despite suspicions of outbreaks – but the country is already taking precautions, reducing the number of public celebrations and asking cadres to appear in protective masks at events.

The Daily NK is part of a group of not-for-profit agencies affiliated with the South Korean Unification Ministry and has occasionally been contacted by Seoul officials for information.

The outlet’s backers include the United States’ National Endowment for Democracy, which awarded it $US400,000 ($635,000) last year to “raise awareness and understanding of the conditions in North Korea by disseminating accurate, timely and relevant news and information about the country”.

With Bloomberg, Reuters

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