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Mystery swirls around state of North Korean leader's health

Questions are swirling about the health of North Korea’s leader after U.S. news reports indicated Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnRussian diplomats leave North Korea by handcar due to coronavirus restrictions Unholy war: The few evangelicals who stood up to Trump Trump offered North Korea's Kim a ride home on Air Force One: report MORE is in poor health following a recent surgery.

The South Korean government, though, said Kim appears to be handling state affairs as usual and that it has no information about his health.

Still, Kim’s health is on the radar of U.S. intelligence, with national security adviser Robert O'Brien saying the U.S. intelligence apparatus is closely monitoring reports about North Korea’s leader.

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"We're monitoring these reports very closely," O'Brien said Tuesday on "Fox & Friends." 

"As you know, North Korea is a very closed society. There's not a free press there. They're parsimonious with the information they provide about many things, including the health of Kim Jong Un," he added.

Asked later about a potential successor to Kim, O’Brien told reporters it would probably be a family member but that “it’s too early to talk about that because we just don’t know what condition Chairman Kim is in.”

The comments come after CNN, citing a single unnamed U.S. official, reported that U.S. intelligence is monitoring reports that Kim is in grave condition following cardiovascular surgery last week. A second source later told CNN that concerns about Kim’s health are credible but that the severity is hard to assess, while Bloomberg reported that U.S. officials said Kim was in critical condition following surgery.

Their reports followed one from Daily NK, a South Korea-based news outlet founded by North Korean defectors, that said Kim was recovering from heart surgery, citing reports from an unnamed source in the country.

North Korea experts, though, remain skeptical, citing the dearth of information from the country, South Korea’s statement and a lack of other signs that something is wrong, including a possible change in security at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing — Pyongyang’s closest ally.

Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst now at the conservative Heritage Foundation, suggested rumors about Kim’s health are a result of “circular reporting as well as overinterpretation or misinterpretation.”

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“Over the years, we've been through so many false reports about the leaders’ health — Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un — as well as other rumors about senior officials being executed and then they come back or people being purged and then they’re back,” he said. 

“So, each of the three leaders have had stories that they died and then it turns out it was not true. Now, obviously, eventually, it is true, and Kim Jong Un is one chocolate wafer away from a heart attack and dying,” he added.

Other experts echoed Klingner, cautioning that rumors about King Jong Un’s health have circulated for a long time. 

Their warnings come as both Chinese and South Korean officials have indicated that they have not heard the same reports that Kim is critically ill. A spokesman for South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement that Seoul has seen no unusual movements in North Korea.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said at a briefing that Beijing was aware of the reports but did not know the source, while an official with the Chinese Communist Party's International Liaison Department told Reuters the office does not believe Kim is critically ill.

The fitness of Kim, who looks portly and is said to have an obese body mass index, has been a source of speculation for years. Korea watchers poured over videos of his 2018 summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, for example, noting Kim was huffing and puffing while planting a tree while the older Moon was fine.

Most recently, speculation about the 36-year-old Kim’s health emerged after he missed last week’s Day of the Sun celebration, which he has not missed since taking power in 2011. The national holiday marks the birth of Kim’s grandfather and North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung.

The last time Kim was seen in public was April 11 when he chaired a meeting of the ruling party’s politburo. North Korea conducted a missile test April 14, but state media did not report Kim observing the test.

Intelligence agencies looking to verify Kim is in ill health would be looking for signs of unusual activity such as troop movements, increased or decreased communications, or recalling people to Pyongyang, Klingner said, adding that a North Korean defector who now works at a think tank affiliated with South Korea’s intelligence agency told him he thinks reports about Kim’s health are “overdone.”

Klingner called Kim’s absence from last week’s holiday “unusual” but also raised the possibility that celebrations were more muted this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Officially, North Korea says it has no cases of COVID-19, but U.S. officials dispute that. Gen. Robert Abrams, the top U.S. general in South Korea, said last month he was “fairly certain” North Korea had cases after its military went on a 30-day lockdown, while Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said last week that military officials are “convinced that they are challenged” by the virus.

An unnamed North Korean resident told Radio Free Asia last week that government officials have been holding lectures to inform their citizens about the threat of the virus, during which they said there were confirmed cases.

The resident claims that the confirmed cases are confined to three areas: the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, South Hwanghae province and North Hamgyong province.

That report came after Pak Myong Su, a top official in North Korea's Central Emergency Anti-Epidemic Headquarters, told Agence France-Presse earlier this month that “not a single person” in the country has contracted the pathogen.

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Experts say news about North Korea must be viewed skeptically.

“I think that we need to be really cautious about everything with North Korea because of the information environment, so it's really difficult to determine what's true and what's not true,” said Toby Dalton, co-director and senior fellow of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment.

Still, Dalton highlighted one unusual episode recently. On Sunday, North Korea publicly refuted President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot Intelligence community investigating links between lawmakers, Capitol rioters Michelle Obama slams 'partisan actions' to 'curtail access to ballot box' MORE’s claim that he received a “nice note” from Kim — something Dalton said he found strange.

“In reading signals from North Korea, it's a little unusual for them to come out and outright deny something,” Dalton added, noting that the timing seemed off and Trump did not make a specific substantive claim about the contents of the letter. 

“Why would you do something that didn't really have implications?” asked Dalton.

Jenny Town, a Stimson Center fellow and deputy director of 38 North, a website that monitors North Korea, said there would likely be other indications something was amiss if Kim’s health was failing.

For example, she said, North Korea has used foreign doctors for its leaders, so flight trackers would have noticed a plane arriving, especially at a time when air travel is so low. Or if Kim is in the mountains, as Daily NK reported, satellite imagery would have seen his train leaving Pyongyang.

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“When the Chinese and South Korean governments are saying that there aren't signs, there's no unusual movements, I think that's what they're probably referring to,” she said.

Still, she said, sometimes rumors from North Korea turn out to be true.

“North Korea's really good at keeping secrets too, so the fact that the rumors are out there shouldn't be completely dismissed,” she said.

But if Kim’s doing fine, “he'll pop up sooner rather than later, just to prove that he's alive,” Town added, predicting he’ll do “a photo-op to show that he's still kicking.”