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Spy agency says Kim's absence was due to virus fears - not heart surgery

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Appearance: Kim Jong-un (centre) visits the fertiliser factory in Sunchon. Photo: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

Appearance: Kim Jong-un (centre) visits the fertiliser factory in Sunchon. Photo: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

AP

Appearance: Kim Jong-un (centre) visits the fertiliser factory in Sunchon. Photo: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

There are no signs North Korean leader Kim Jong-un received heart surgery when he disappeared from state media for three weeks, but he reduced public activity due to coronavirus concerns, South Korean lawmakers briefed by its spy agency said.

Mr Kim attended the completion of a fertiliser plant, North Korea's official media said on Saturday, the first report of his appearing in public since April 11.

His absence fuelled a flurry of speculation about his health and whereabouts, with a South Korean news outlet reporting Mr Kim was recovering from a cardiovascular procedure while CNN said US officials were monitoring intelligence he was "in grave danger" after surgery.

Members of South Korea's parliamentary intelligence committee said after a meeting with the National Intelligence Service (NIS) that the reports were "groundless".

"The NIS assesses that at least he did not get any heart-related procedure or surgery," committee member Kim Byung-kee told reporters. "He was normally performing his duties when he was out of the public eye.

"At least there's no heart-related health problem."

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Kim Jong-un's possible heirs

Kim Jong-un's possible heirs

The credit GRAPHIC NEWS mu

Kim Jong-un's possible heirs

But the lawmaker said Mr Kim has only made 17 public appearances so far this year, compared with an average of 50 from previous years, which the NIS ascribed to a possible coronavirus outbreak in North Korea.

"Kim Jong-un had focused on consolidating internal affairs such as military forces and party-state meetings, and coronavirus concerns have further limited his public activity," Kim Byung-kee said.

"Though North Korea maintains it has zero cases, it cannot be ruled out that there is an outbreak there given they had active people-to-people exchanges with China before closing the border in late January."

North Korea has said it has no confirmed cases. South Korea's Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who oversees North Korea affairs, has said Mr Kim's public disappearance was not particularly unusual because the country had been taking stringent steps to head off an outbreak.

The lawmaker said Mr Kim had ordered measures to prevent the disease, stabilise prices and strengthen military discipline, as border shutdowns and market closures prompted rises in food prices and panic-buying in the capital Pyongyang.

Mr Kim's visit to the fertiliser factory appeared to be aimed at expressing his resolve to ease food shortages and build a self-reliant economy.

Irish Independent