In Brief

Kim Jong Un: rumours persist North Korean leader is ‘dead’ or in ‘vegetative state’

Team of Chinese medical experts sent to North Korea as questions mount as to leader’s whereabouts and health

China has sent a team of medical experts to advise on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s health amid conflicting reports that he is in a vegetative state or has died following complications from heart surgery.

Reuters reports a delegation including medical experts and officials from a Chinese Communist party liaison office responsible for handling North Korean affairs left Beijing for North Korea on Thursday, “according to three people familiar with the situation”.

“A third-generation hereditary leader who came to power after his father’s death in 2011, Kim has no clear successor in a nuclear-armed country, which could present major international risk,” says the news agency.

Speculation something was amiss was first sparked after the 36-year-old leader failed to appear at ceremonies marking the birth of Kim Il Sung, his grandfather and the country’s revered founding leader.

He was also not present on Saturday as North Korea celebrated the 88th anniversary of the founding of its armed forces, the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army.

The Financial Times, which has not verified the Reuters report, says “the dictator had previously missed important public events and past speculation over happenings inside the reclusive state had later been proven incorrect”.

In 2014, he vanished for more than a month and North Korean state TV later showed him walking with a limp. “Speculation about his health has been fanned by his heavy smoking, apparent weight gain since taking power and family history of cardiovascular problems,” reports CNBC.

“Still, the absence of the leader from a big event, while not unprecedented, raised questions about his whereabouts,” says the FT.

A train believed to belong to Kim has been spotted near his compound at Wonsan on the country’s east coast, 38 North, a Washington think-tank that monitors North Korea via commercial satellite imagery has confirmed.

“The train’s presence does not prove the whereabouts of the North Korean leader or indicate anything about his health, but it does lend weight to reports that Kim is staying at an elite area on the country’s eastern coast,” analysts from the think-tank said.

Forbes says his extended absence, coupled with no official statement, “has spurred speculation over his health, with reports ranging from that he is gravely ill after a cardiovascular operation to that he’s already dead”.

The vice-director of Hong Kong Satellite Television (HKSTV) Shijian Xingzou, who the Daily Mail claims has “15 million followers on Chinese social media Weibo, and is also the niece of one of the country's foreign ministers” has said a “very solid source” has told her Kim is already dead.

Separately, a Japanese media outlet has claimed Kim is in a “vegetative state” after he underwent heart surgery earlier in the month.

Other unconfirmed reports in The Times, which have been attributed to senior party sources in Beijing, “said Kim had died after the Chinese medical team arrived too late to save him following failed heart surgery. In one version, an operation to insert a stent went wrong because a North Korean doctor’s hands were shaking so badly”.

However, a South Korean source told Reuters on Friday their intelligence was that Kim was alive and would likely make an appearance soon.

US Senator Lindsey Graham, who is a member of the US Foreign Relations Committee, has said although he has no direct information about Kim’s health, his lack of public appearances is telling.

“It’s a closed society. I haven’t heard anything directly, but I'll be shocked if he’s not dead or in some incapacitated state because you don’t let rumors like this go forever or go unanswered in a closed society," he told Fox News.

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