China has sent a team of doctors to North Korea to help determine supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un's health status, Reuters reported on Friday. Hong Kong Satellite Television reported that Kim was dead, though there has been no confirmation from U.S. sources at this point.
"While the U.S. continues to monitor reports surrounding the health of the North Korean Supreme Leader, at this time, there is no confirmation from official channels that Kim Jong Un is deceased," a senior Pentagon official not authorized to speak on the record told Newsweek. "North Korean military readiness remains within historical norms and there is no further evidence to suggest a significant change in defensive posturing or national level leadership changes."
Kim's last confirmed public appearance was on April 11, at a politburo meeting, though state media also shared footage of him attending aerial assault drills the following day. It was his absence from April 15 Day of the Sun celebrations dedicated to his grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, that first sparked speculation regarding his well-being.
On Monday, rumors spread that the North Korean head of state was in ill health after undergoing heart surgery on April 12, sparked by an anonymous source featured in the South Korea-based Daily NK outlet, a publication linked to a U.S. Congress-funded think tank among other institutions, along with a CNN article citing an unnamed U.S. official that said Kim was in grave danger following the operation.
These rumors were subsequently discounted by U.S. intelligence, with two U.S. officials telling Newsweek on Tuesday they had no reason to think that Kim had suffered any kind of serious illness. Similarly, at the time, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency cited a government official who said there was nothing unusual coming from North Korea that could suggest Kim was ill.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry did not respond to Newsweek's request for comment the following day, but referred to a Blue House statement in which the office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in also said no unusual activity related to North Korea or the health of its dynast had been reported. Chinese and Russian officials have questioned the sourcing of the U.S. and South Korean media reports, as has President Donald Trump, the first sitting U.S. leader to meet a North Korean supreme leader.
The president said Thursday he believed CNN's report was "incorrect," but had no further information to provide about Kim's condition.
"We have a good relationship with North Korea, as good as you can have," Trump told reporters. "I mean we have a good relationship with North Korea. I have a good relationship with Kim Jong Un and I hope he's okay."
Kim and his familial predecessors have long been the subject of international press conjecture as information within North Korea is strictly controlled, leaving little room for leaks. Since Kim took over following his father's death in 2011, he has been known to at times disappear, his longest absence being over a month in 2014.
But unlike those who ruled before him, the youngest, current supreme leader lacks any clear line of succession known to the outside world. With only foreign sources claiming Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, may have had any children, the young ruler has no official heir. Some have speculated that his younger sister Kim Yo Jong, reported to be 31 and one of Kim's key lieutenants, could succeed her brother, who has steadily promoted her position in recent years.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed Kim Yo Jong in an interview Thursday with Fox News.
"Well, I did have a chance to meet her a couple of times, but the challenge remains the same. The goal remains unchanged," Pompeo said. "Whoever is leading North Korea, we want them to give up their nuclear program, we want them to join the league of nations, and we want a brighter future for the North Korean people. But they've got to denuclearize, and we've got to do so in a way that we can verify. That's true no matter who is leading North Korea."
After a tense 2017 filled with exchanges of nuclear-fueled threats, the Trump administration set out in 2018 to strike an unprecedented denuclearization-for-peace deal with Pyongyang. The effort yielded some early good-faith measures on both sides, as well as three historic meetings between Trump and Kim but ultimately failed to produce an agreement, leading to a gradual renewal in frictions between the longtime foe still technically at war since their 1950s conflict that still dominates the divided Korean Peninsula.
This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available.