North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, resurfaced in public view on Friday, the North’s state news media reported Saturday, debunking three weeks of rumors and unconfirmed news reports that he was in grave danger after undergoing heart surgery.
He appeared at a ceremony at a factory in Sunchon, the North’s state media said. The report has not been independently confirmed.
Mr. Kim, 36, last appeared publicly on April 11. Speculation about his health — and about who would take over the hermetic country with a nuclear arsenal should he become incapacitated or die — began swirling after Mr. Kim missed the state celebrations of his country’s biggest holiday on April 15. On that day the country marks the birthday of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea.
The rumors had subsequently gone into overdrive, claiming that he was “in grave danger,” in a “vegetative state” after botched heart-valve surgery, or in quarantine after contracting Covid-19. Other reports said that China had sent doctors to Pyongyang to save him.
While reporting Mr. Kim’s reappearance, the North’s state news agency did not carry any photos of him, as it usually has in his past public appearances. The lack of photographic evidence may keep the rumor mill churning over what physical condition Mr. Kim is in.
The North Korean news agency said Mr. Kim cut the ribbon at a completed fertilizer factory. “All the participants again burst into thunderous cheers of ‘hurrah!’” the news agency said.
The report said that Mr. Kim “warmly acknowledged the builders and masses raising thunderous cheers” and looked around the factory, accompanied by senior Workers’ Party officials, including his only sister, Kim Yo-jong, it said.
The South Korean government did not immediately comment on the report, but it has pushed back against recent speculation that Mr. Kim was in poor health. Its unification minister, Kim Yeon-chul, had called the reports “fake news,” saying that South Korea could say “confidently” that there was no evidence to confirm rumors that Mr. Kim was gravely ill.
Amid the reports, North Korea had continued to send out letters and gifts to foreign leaders and domestic workers under Mr. Kim’s name.
The rumor mill about Mr. Kim’s fate had been fueled by the fact that North Korea had not reported a public appearance by its leader for weeks. Nor had it responded to lurid claims about his health.
On Friday, Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector who won a seat in the South Korean parliament through the April 15 elections, told reporters that he was “99 percent sure” that Mr. Kim had died last weekend.
This is not the first time Mr. Kim had disappeared from public view for weeks at a time or faced intense speculation about his health. And the information vacuum surrounding the doings of North Korean leaders leaves fertile ground for misinformation to spread.
Some past rumors about the health of North Korean leaders have indeed proved true, like speculation that Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, had a stroke in 2008. But most turned out to be groundless.
In 1986, a South Korean newspaper reported a “world scoop” claiming that Mr. Kim’s grandfather, then-President Kim Il-sung, had died in an armed attack. A smiling Kim Il-sung resurfaced two days later.
In 2014, Kim Jong-un disappeared for more than a month, prompting rumors that he might have been deposed in a coup. North Korean media later showed him walking with a cane; South Korean intelligence said he had undergone ankle surgery.
Over the years, top officials reported to have been executed have also often resurfaced. In 2015, a North Korean defector claimed that Mr. Kim ordered his own aunt killed with poison. But the aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, re-emerged in Pyongyang in January.