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North Korea's Kim reappears to 'thunderous cheers' as rumours of his death exaggerated

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ALIVE AND SNIPPING: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, centre, cuts a ribbon, watched by his sister Kim Yo-jong, during his visit to a fertiliser factory in Sunchon, South Pyongan province, near Pyongyang, North Korea last Friday

ALIVE AND SNIPPING: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, centre, cuts a ribbon, watched by his sister Kim Yo-jong, during his visit to a fertiliser factory in Sunchon, South Pyongan province, near Pyongyang, North Korea last Friday

AP

ALIVE AND SNIPPING: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, centre, cuts a ribbon, watched by his sister Kim Yo-jong, during his visit to a fertiliser factory in Sunchon, South Pyongan province, near Pyongyang, North Korea last Friday

Most ribbon-cutting ceremonies are unremarkable affairs, the stuff of local newspaper photographs at most.

But this one was different. It involved North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong-un in his first reported appearance in 20 days, during which there has been intense speculation about his health and even whether he was still alive.

The newly released footage of Kim glad-handing at a North Korean fertiliser production plant north of Pyongyang last Friday would appear to have put an end to that. He was pictured standing in front of a banner reading May 1, to drive home the point.

The date is also written in the Latin alphabet, in case there were any doubts about which audience this "proof" is for. The choice of backdrop may be another hidden message to the West. The fertiliser plant has been the subject of attention for years because of its potential dual-use in the process of uranium extraction from phosphoric acid, allowing North Korea to conceal its nuclear activities from the outside world.

According to state news agency KCNA, which released the images, Kim was accompanied by his younger sister Kim Yo-jong. Those attending "burst into thunderous cheers of 'hurrah!' for the Supreme Leader," the agency said.

Speculation about Kim's health began after he missed the birth anniversary of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, on April 15, when he usually pays a visit to the mausoleum where the nation's founder lies in state.

The possibility of high-level instability raised troubling questions about the future of the secretive, nuclear-armed state that has been steadily building an arsenal meant to threaten the US mainland while diplomacy between Kim and President Donald Trump has stalled. Some experts say South Korea, as well as its regional neighbours and ally Washington, must begin preparing for the possible chaos that could come if Kim is sidelined by health problems or even dies. Worst-case scenarios include North Korean refugees flooding South Korea or China or military hard-liners letting loose nuclear weapons.

"The world is largely unprepared for instability in North Korea," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. "Washington, Seoul and Tokyo need tighter coordination on contingency plans while international organisations need more resources and less controversy over the role of China."

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump declined to comment about Kim's reappearance but said he would "have something to say about it at the appropriate time".

Robert E Kelly, professor of political science at Pusan National University, in South Korea, said: "We can't know, of course; it's North Korea. But I do think he's OK at the moment. The evidence is fairly convincing."

It wasn't immediately clear what caused Kim's absence in past weeks. In 2014, Kim vanished from the public eye for nearly six weeks and then reappeared with a cane. South Korea's spy agency said he had a cyst removed from his ankle.

Analysts say his health could become an increasing factor in years ahead: he's overweight, smokes and drinks, and has a family history of heart issues.

If he's suddenly unable to rule, some analysts said his sister would be installed as leader to continue Pyongyang's heredity dynasty that began after World War II.

But others question whether core members of North Korea's elite, mostly men in their 60s or 70s, would find it hard to accept a young and untested female leader who lacks military credentials. Some predict a collective leadership or violent power struggles.

Following an unusually provocative run in missile and nuclear tests in 2017, Kim used the Winter Olympics in South Korea to initiate negotiations with Washington and Seoul in 2018. That led to a surprising series of summits, including three between Kim and Trump.

But negotiations have faltered in past months over disagreements in exchanging sanctions relief and disarmament steps, which raised doubts about whether Kim would ever fully deal away an arsenal he likely sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.

┬ęTelegraph

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