New questions have emerged about the condition of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with the Japanese defense minister suggesting that the latest round of saber-rattling from the rogue regime may be due to his poor health and a spread of COVID-19 in the country, according to reports.
Speaking at an English-language briefing at the Japanese Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo on Thursday, Taro Kono addressed the Hermit Kingdom’s “strange” actions amid rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, NK News reported.
On Thursday, Pyongyang claimed that, in the face of “hostile policy” by the US, it had no choice but to counter “nuclear with nuclear” — an announcement that came on the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War.
Taking care to avoid attributing his remarks to Japanese intelligence, Kono said he believed the secretive country’s escalations may be to “take away the attention of North Korean people away from Kim Jong Un’s health, or the bad harvest or the bad economy.”
“We suspect, number one, that COVID-19 is spreading around North Korea as well, and Kim Jong Un is trying to … not [be] infected by COVID-19,” he said, the South Korea-based outlet reported. “So sometimes he doesn’t come [out] in public.”
Kono continued: “Number two, we have some suspicion about his health. Thirdly, the harvest last year in North Korea wasn’t quite good — bad, actually … The economy in North Korea is not doing well.”
Japanese Defense Minister Taro KonoFranck Robichon/EPA
The defense minister avoided answering a question about Kim’s health, saying he wasn’t “allowed to discuss intelligence issues, including if it is [an] intelligence issue or not.”
Kono attributed his opinion that the coronavirus may be spreading throughout North Korea to public information, according to NK News.
“The commander of US forces in Korea also talked about that, he believes that COVID-19 is already inside North Korea,” Kono said. “I personally agree [with] his view. We just need to estimate how widely it is spreading.”
The defense minister’s comments come amid weeks of mounting tensions, which culminated in the recent demolition by Pyongyang of a joint liaison office in Kaesong used for talks between the two Koreas.
While incensed over activist plans to send leaflets with anti-North Korean messages over the border, Pyongyang on Wednesday suspended plans for “military action” against the South.
Despite the latest speculation about Kim, the reclusive strongman appeared jubilant when he took part in a meeting of the politburo of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party earlier this month.
Rumors about his health swirled after he did not appear at a celebration dedicated to his late ruling grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on April 15. North Korean state media later reported that he attended the opening ceremony of a fertilizer plant on May 1.