South Korea said it was not true that North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un was gravely ill, contradicting US media reports, though his absence from recent public events has sparked speculation about his health and refocused attention on his eventual succession.
The nuclear-armed dictator is only 36 years old, but is clearly overweight and is frequently seen smoking. Still, when he failed to show up for an important celebration to mark his grandfather's birthday last week, most experts assessed that he was either taking precautions over coronavirus, or was simply breaking with precedent to show he was his own man.
On Monday night, another possible explanation surfaced: South Korean news website Daily NK reported that Mr Kim was recovering at a mountain villa after undergoing a cardiovascular procedure last week. It cited a single unidentified source.
The report quickly snowballed after CNN cited a US official "with direct knowledge" as saying Washington was monitoring intelligence that Mr Kim's health was in "grave danger" after a surgery. The network later cited another official as saying concerns about Mr Kim's health were credible, but the severity hard to assess.
While South Korea's government soon denied the report, it revived uncertainty about events in North Korea should Mr Kim be incapacitated.
"We have nothing to confirm regarding recent media reports about the health problems of Chairman Kim Jong-un of North Korea, and no atypical movement inside North Korea has been detected," Kang Min-seok, a spokesman for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, said.
Another South Korean government official, who was not authorised to be quoted by name, said the CNN report was "not true".
"Our government understands that Kim Jong-un is currently staying in a region outside Pyongyang," he said.
China's Foreign Ministry declined to comment on Mr Kim's whereabouts, other than saying the two countries were good neighbours and that Beijing was ready to advance bilateral relations.
Mr Kim's health has long been a concern, but he also has the best medical care North Korea can muster, with the ability to call on expertise from Russia or China. Information about his health is extremely hard to verify in the secretive state. Daily NK, which was set up by North Korean defectors, said Mr Kim had undergone surgery at a hospital in North Korea's Hyangsan county on April 12 - the same hospital where his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, died.
But the website said Mr Kim had left the hospital to recover at one of his many residences. It also said some doctors remained in attendance but others had already returned to Pyongyang - suggesting that there was no emergency.
Diplomats and officials in the region said there were no signs of unusual military activity at the border between North and South Korea, and North Korean embassies around the world appeared to be operating normally. Nonetheless, news of his father's death in 2011 did not emerge for two days.
Daily NK said Mr Kim had been suffering cardiovascular problems since August, which had been worsened by two visits to Mount Paektu, a sacred peak in North Korea, late last year. It said Mr Kim left Pyongyang for the hospital on April 11 and has not been seen in public since.
Mr Kim is often shown in state media attending weapons launches, but an April 12 test was not reported in official organs. On April 15, he was not seen at celebrations to mark Kim Il Sung's official birthday. On Sunday, North Korea denied Kim had sent a letter to President Donald Trump, after the US leader claimed to have received a "nice note" from his counterpart in Pyongyang. (© Washington Post)