WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump declined to comment on the health of Kim Jung Un Friday as North Korea’s state news agency claimed the country’s leader made his first public appearance in weeks.
North Korea’s state-controlled news agency reported that Kim attended a public ceremony at a fertilizer plant on Saturday, North Korean time, amid rampant speculation that he was ill and possibly even near death.
Independent news agencies could not confirm the North Korean report. The news outlet later released photos from the event, but the images could not be independently verified.
Asked about Kim’s health on Friday, Trump said: “I’d rather not comment on it yet. … We’ll have something to say about it at the appropriate time.”
When asked if he knew whether Kim was alive, Trump responded: “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Kim did not attend an April 15 celebration of his grandfather’s birthday, an important national holiday that he had not previously missed since his rise to power in 2011.
Last week, a Seoul-based website called Daily NK reported that the North Korean leader had undergone heart surgery on April 12 and was recuperating at a villa outside the capital, Pyongyang. The Daily NK’s story was based on a single source inside North Korea. Other media outlets, including CNN, have reported that Kim’s health may be in “grave danger.”
Other North Korea experts echoed that assessment amid the news of Kim’s reported reemergence.
“He most likely was taking steps to ensure his health or may have been impacted in some way personally by the virus,” said Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest, a foreign policy think tank.
Trump has teased reporters in recent weeks amid reports that Kim was near death, but has never publicly declared what his intelligence services are saying about the situation.
On Monday, Trump told reporters he knew how Kim was doing but couldn’t divulge that information: “I do have a very good idea, but I can’t talk about it now. I just wish him well.”
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Told by a reporter that Kim made some kind of statement last Saturday, Trump replied: “He didn’t say anything last Saturday. Nobody knows where he is so he obviously couldn’t have said it. This is breaking news that Kim Jong Un made a statement on Saturday. I don’t think so.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested the U.S. was preparing for a transition in case Kim’s health was in jeopardy.
“We know we’ve not been able to identify a public appearance of his for now a little over two weeks – not unheard of, but unusual,” Pompeo told a radio interviewer on Thursday. “But beyond that, I don’t have much that I can share. … We are working to make sure we’re prepared for whatever eventuality there is.”
Contributing: Associated Press