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Trump's diplomacy no help in solving Kim mystery amid health speculation


Absent: North Korea leader Kim Jong-un has disappeared from public view. Photo: Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images

Absent: North Korea leader Kim Jong-un has disappeared from public view. Photo: Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images

Getty Images

Absent: North Korea leader Kim Jong-un has disappeared from public view. Photo: Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images

US President Donald Trump's personal engagement with Kim Jong-un has done nothing to shed any light on the plight of the North Korean dictator.

After a murky report on an obscure website set off global speculation over the health of the mercurial potentate, the US appears to be in no better position than before to assess the stability of the regime.

The mystery over his disappearance deepened after another day of rumours.

They were kick-started when 'Daily NK', a South Korean publication run by defectors, asserted Kim was recovering at a mountain villa after undergoing a cardiovascular procedure.

Though the outlet cited a single unidentified source, the report snowballed after CNN quoted a US official "with direct knowledge" as saying Washington was monitoring intelligence that Kim's health was in "grave danger."

By the time the South Korean government contradicted the bulletins by saying there was no such evidence, the uncertainty had produced a round of pontificating over why Kim, an obese 36-year-old smoker, had disappeared from public view in recent days and who would succeed him.

"We're monitoring these reports very closely," said White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien, emphasising: "North Korea is a very closed society."

The situation was reminiscent of past incidents in which Kim - and his father, Kim Jong-il, before him - had health scares, leaving US officials in the dark.

In 2014, the younger Kim disappeared from public view for several days, prompting rumours he might be brain-dead before it emerged he had undergone ankle surgery after he returned to public life using a walking stick.

Even Kim's ascension in 2011 was shrouded in mystery - US officials did not know of his father's death for two days until the regime announced it.

"I would not be surprised if US intelligence or South Korean intelligence simply don't know" about Kim's whereabouts or condition, said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst on Korean affairs.

Such a lack of clarity would further highlight the limits of Trump's unorthodox personal diplomacy with Kim, which has included three meetings over 13 months of fitful nuclear disarmament talks.

Though the negotiations have become dormant since last summer, Trump sent Kim a note in late March which included an offer to co-operate in efforts to defeat the coronavirus pandemic, according to the leader's sister, Kim Yo-jong, a high-ranking official in the ruling party.

North Korean officials denied Trump's assertion that Kim had replied with a note of his own, and the US president's courtship strategy has shown signs of diminishing returns. North Korea has resumed short-range missile tests, including projectile launches, over the past month.

A former US government official who worked on North Korean diplomacy suggested Trump's personal courtship of Kim could make it more difficult for intelligence officials to assess Kim's health and the stability of the regime.

A former Obama administration official noted that, despite the leaders' relationship, the rush to forgo a working-level dialogue on nuclear talks in favour of showy summits has meant missed opportunities to establish deeper engagement throughout the two governments.

Christopher Hill, who served as lead negotiator in the six-party talks with North Korea during the George W Bush administration, recalled the uncertainty over Kim Jong-il's health amid US and South Korean intelligence reports he had suffered a stroke in summer 2008. The assessments were confirmed months later by a French doctor flown to the country to treat him.

Hill said the Trump administration's deteriorating relationship with China could reduce potential intelligence-sharing from North Korea's closest benefactor.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Beijing was unaware of the source of the reports on Kim and offered no further comment.

"I don't think North Korea will tell us anything, no matter how many love letters they send," Hill said.

"Where we used to get stuff was from the Chinese, and I think the relationship with China has become so fraught we don't have any kind of off-line communication that helps us understand North Korea."

Kim's health has long been a concern given his heavy smoking habit and weight of as much as 21 stones (135kg), 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.

When Kim did not show up for a celebration to mark his late grandfather's birthday last week, most experts assessed he was either taking precautions because of the coronavirus pandemic or was simply breaking with precedent to show he was his own man.

'Daily NK' said Kim underwent surgery on April 12 at a hospital in North Korea's Myohyangsan mountain, where his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, died in 1994. It said Kim left the hospital to recover at one of his many residences, adding that some doctors remained in attendance but others had returned to Pyongyang, suggesting there was no immediate medical emergency.

Officials 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.