By KIM TONG-HYUNG
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his first public appearance in 20 days as he celebrated the completion of a fertilizer factory near Pyongyang, state media said on May 2, ending an absence that had triggered global rumors that he may be seriously ill.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, reported that Kim attended the May 1 ceremony in Sunchon with other senior officials, including his sister Kim Yo Jong, who many analysts predict would take over if her brother is suddenly unable to rule.
State media showed videos and photos of Kim wearing a black Mao suit and constantly smiling, walking around facilities, applauding, cutting a huge red ribbon with a scissor handed by his sister, and smoking inside and outside of buildings while talking with other officials.
Seemingly thousands of workers, many of them masked, stood in lines at the massive complex, roaring in celebration and releasing balloons into the air. A sign installed on a stage where Kim sat with other senior officials read: “Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory; Completion Ceremony; May 1, 2020.’’
There was no definite sign that Kim was in discomfort, although there were moments where his walking looked a bit stiff. He was shown moving without a walking stick, like the one he used in 2014 when he was recovering from a presumed ankle surgery. However, he was also seen riding a green electric cart, which appeared similar to a vehicle he used in 2014.
It was Kim’s first public appearance since April 11, when he presided over a ruling Workers’ Party meeting to discuss the coronavirus and reappoint his sister as an alternate member of the powerful decision-making Political Bureau of the party’s Central Committee. That move confirmed her substantial role in the government.
North Korea has said it hasn’t had a single virus case, but the claim is questioned by many outside experts.
It wasn’t immediately clear what had caused Kim’s absence.
Speculation about his health swirled after he missed the April 15 birthday celebration for his late grandfather Kim Il Sung, the country’s most important holiday, for the first time since taking power in 2011.
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.’’
During his nearly three-week absence, state media reported that Kim was carrying out routine activities outside public view, such as sending greetings to the leaders of Syria, Cuba and South Africa, and expressing gratitude to workers building tourist facilities in the coastal town of Wonsan, where some speculated he was staying.
In 2014, Kim vanished from the public eye for nearly six weeks before reappearing with a cane. South Korea’s spy agency said at the time that he had a cyst removed from his ankle.
Analysts say Kim’s 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 have said his sister, believed to be around four years younger than her brother, would be installed as leader to continue Pyongyang’s heredity dynasty that began after World War II.