“It’s just hard to know,” National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien said Tuesday. “We’re keeping a close eye on it”

By Ashley Boucher and Adam Carlson
April 21, 2020 10:20 AM
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Government officials in the U.S., South Korea and China conflicted this week over whether North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un was having a health crisis — though some news outlets reported that Kim’s condition was critical after a recent surgery.

CNN, which first reported the possible issues, cited a U.S. official who said there was intelligence suggesting Kim was, according to the network, “in grave danger.”

Kim’s father and grandfather before him died of heart failure, according to The New York Times. Kim is reportedly a heavy smoker and overweight.

American officials speaking anonymously to both CNN and Bloomberg said that it seemed Kim’s health had in fact deteriorated after a medical procedure — this after an anonymously sourced report in Daily NK, a South Korea-based website that said it relies on leaks from North Korea.

The site published an article citing a North Korea source that Kim had heart surgery on April 12.

Bloomberg’s U.S. sources also said Kim had cardiovascular surgery and had been in critical condition. However “the Trump administration wasn’t sure of his current health,” according to the outlet.

Credit: Getty Images

North Korea is infamously closed off from other countries and information about its society and government, and about Kim in particular, is difficult to verify.

“Any credible direct reporting having to do with Kim would be highly compartmented intelligence and unlikely to leak to the media,” an anonymous U.S. government source told Reuters.

According to the Associated Press, a spokesman for South Korea’s president said, “No unusual developments have been detected inside North Korea.” The spokesman said there was no comment on the differing reports on Kim’s condition.

Presidential officials there later said they believed Kim was staying outside the capital of Pyongyang and seemed to be conducting normal business, the AP reported.

A Chinese government source speaking anonymously to Reuters disputed CNN’s reporting.

“We are regularly gathering and analyzing information about North Korea with great concern,” a spokesman for Japan’s government told Reuters. “We will keep gathering and analyzing information regarding North Korea by collaborating with other countries such as the U.S.”

Kim Jong Un
| Credit: Getty Images

Any change in the country’s leadership poses international risk, given its nuclear ambitions and its lack of transparency or clear stability. Kim, who succeeded his father, was not even officially photographed until 2010 — when he was already an adult. His successor has never been identified.

“We’re monitoring these reports very closely,” U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said on Fox News on Tuesday.

“They’re parsimonious with the information they provide about many things, including the health of Kim Jong Un,” O’Brien added.

“It’s just hard to know,” he said. “We’re keeping a close eye on it.”

Bruce Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for North Korea, told CNN that health problems would explain Kim’s absence at the April 15th celebration for his late grandfather Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, whose birthday is the country’s most important holiday.

“There have been a number of recent rumors about Kim’s health (smoking, heart, and brain). If Kim is hospitalized, it would explain why he wasn’t present on the important April 15th celebrations,” Klingner, who is a Heritage Foundation senior research fellow, told the network.

“But, over the years, there have been a number of false health rumors about Kim Jong Un or his father,” Klinger added. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

John Delury, an international relations professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, warned to CNN: “It’s easy to be wrong on this one.”

Kim was reportedly last mentioned by state media on April 11, when he attended a government meeting about the novel coronavirus pandemic and other issues.

The country’s state-run news organizations have not commented on Kim’s health, according to Bloomberg.