SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, resurfaced in public view on Friday, the North’s state news media reported Saturday, controverting three weeks of rumors and unconfirmed news reports that he was in grave danger after undergoing heart surgery.
He appeared at a ceremony at a factory in Sunchon, the North’s state news agency said, later releasing photos from the event. The report was not independently confirmed immediately.
Mr. Kim, 36, had last appeared publicly on April 11. Speculation about his health — and about who would take over the hermetic country with a nuclear arsenal should he become incapacitated or die — began swirling after Mr. Kim missed the state celebrations of his country’s biggest holiday on April 15. On that day the country marks the birthday of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea.
The rumors had subsequently gone into overdrive, claiming that he was “in grave danger,” in a “vegetative state” after botched heart-valve surgery, or in quarantine after contracting Covid-19. Other reports said that China had sent doctors to Pyongyang to save him.
After its initial report on Saturday, the North Korean news agency released photos showing a smiling Mr. Kim clapping hands, cutting a ribbon, and standing with his hands locked across his chest and behind his back at a new fertilizer factory.
“All the participants again burst into thunderous cheers of ‘hurrah’” the news agency said, adding that Mr. Kim “warmly acknowledged the builders and masses raising thunderous cheers.” The report went on to say that he looked around the factory, accompanied by senior Workers’ Party officials, including his only sister, Kim Yo-jong, it said.
Although apparently no outside media was allowed to witness the ceremony, the report by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency follows a familiar pattern: State media typically reports Mr. Kim’s public appearances a day after it took place, carrying photos from the scene as well.
The South Korean government did not immediately comment on the report, but it has pushed back against recent speculation that Mr. Kim was in poor health. Its unification minister, Kim Yeon-chul, had called the prior reports “fake news,” saying that South Korea could say “confidently” that there was no evidence to confirm rumors that Mr. Kim was gravely ill.
Amid the reports, North Korea had continued to send out letters and gifts to foreign leaders and domestic workers under Mr. Kim’s name.
As recently as Friday, before the report in the North’s state media, Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector who recently won a seat in the South Korean Parliament, told reporters that he was “99 percent sure” that Mr. Kim had died last weekend.
The past weeks of rumors have shown how “unprepared” the outside world remains “for a potential political crisis caused by something like the sudden, unexpected death of the dictator in a country bristling with dozens of nuclear weapons,” said Danny Russel, vice president of Asia Society Policy Institute.
“We got a glimpse of the danger of loose nukes and worse if the death of Kim Jong-un had unleashed a destabilizing power struggle” in the North, where Mr. Kim had no designated adult heir in place, Mr. Russel said by email. Mr. Russel had dealt with North Korea as a National Security Council director at the White House and assistant secretary of state for Asia.
He said the past few weeks showed that “authoritative information about the North Korean supreme leader’s well-being and whereabouts is very closely guarded, and therefore dramatic rumors about his health and behavior need to be regarded with considerable skepticism.”
The North’s report on Saturday did not dispel the mystery over why Mr. Kim missed the important state ceremonies for his grandfather’s birthday — an absence that set off a series of speculative reports. A South Korean news website that hires North Korean defectors as reporters said that Mr. Kim had undergone heart surgery. U.S. news reports said that Washington was monitoring intelligence that Mr. Kim was “in grave danger.”
This is not the first time Mr. Kim had disappeared from public view for weeks at a time or faced intense speculation about his health. And the information vacuum surrounding the doings of North Korean leaders leaves fertile ground for misinformation to spread.
Some past rumors about the health of North Korean leaders have indeed proved true, like speculation that Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, had a stroke in 2008. But most turned out to be groundless.
In 1986, a South Korean newspaper reported a “world scoop” claiming that Mr. Kim’s grandfather, then-President Kim Il-sung, had died in an armed attack. A smiling Kim Il-sung resurfaced two days later.
In 2014, Kim Jong-un disappeared for more than a month, prompting rumors that he might have been deposed in a coup. North Korean media later showed him walking with a cane; South Korean intelligence said he had undergone ankle surgery.