U.S. Intelligence Has No Evidence North Korea's Kim Jong Un Is in Grave Condition, Officials Say

The U.S. intelligence community has no evidence that North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un is in grave condition despite media reports that speculated about his failing health, two senior U.S. intelligence officials told Newsweek.

The North Korean ruler's failure to attend this year's April 15 national Day of the Sun celebrations commemorating his grandfather, late leader Kim Il Sung, raised speculation about his well-being, especially amid a global pandemic that North Korea said claimed has not hit the country. Kim Jong Un has disappeared from the spotlight before, notably during an absence in 2014 that lasted longer than a month and also prompted rumors regarding his health. However, this absence has been noted by international media as odd.

The South Korea-based online newspaper Daily NK, a largely North Korean defector-run outlet that receives funding from the U.S. Congress-linked National Endowment for Democracy among other institutions, first reported Monday that Kim Jong Un had undergone cardiovascular surgery on April 12 and was recovering at a villa at Mount Kumgang in eastern Hyangsan province, citing an anonymous source within North Korea. CNN later cited an unnamed U.S. official saying the United States was monitoring intelligence that the young ruler could be in grave danger following a procedure.

One senior U.S. intelligence official told Newsweek Tuesday that the intelligence community "currently has no supporting evidence" about reports that Kim Jong Un's health was in danger, "but is continuing to monitor reports from regional partners and Korean press."

The official told Newsweek that the last proof of life for the North Korean ruler was on April 18 and said they could not definitely comment on his current state of health.

The Blue House said earlier Tuesday it had monitored no unusual activity regarding Kim Jong Un's health and that the country appeared to be conducting its affairs as usual, echoing unnamed South Korean officials previously cited by the Yonhap News Agency. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said Tuesday he was aware of reports concerning the North Korean ruler's health, but questioned their sourcing and Russian presidential spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told state media that the Kremlin was awaiting official information.

White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien told reporters on Tuesday that President Donald Trump's administration was "monitoring these reports very closely" regarding the North Korean leader's health, but noted that North Korea "was parsimonious about the information they provide about many things, including the health of Kim Jong Un."

North Korea is known for maintaining a tight grip on the flow of information to and from the country, making it difficult to obtain or verify media not closely curated by the government. The senior U.S. intelligence official told Newsweek that it was "hard to tell" exactly the state of Kim Jong Un's condition due to a lack of reporting coming out of North Korea, but stated that "their military status remains the same, which is the biggest indicator." In a heavily-militarized society like North Korea, the activity of the armed forces often signals major events.

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North Korea supreme leader Kim Jong Un walks alongside officials among warplanes of the Korean People's Army Air and Anti-Aircraft Force's western division in this photo shared April 12 by the Korean Central News Agency. Korean Central News Agency

Kim Jong Un assumed the head of the country after the 2011 death of his father, Kim Jong Il, who inherited the position from his own father, who died in 1994. He was believed to be the world's youngest world leader when he took over at the suspected age of 27.

Experts and observers have for years speculated about what would happen if Kim Jong Un died because he appeared to have not established a clear line of succession.

When asked about possible successors, O'Brien said Tuesday the "basic assumption would be maybe it would be someone in the family, but again it's too early to talk about that because we don't know what condition Chairman Kim is in and we'll have to see how it plays out."

Joseph DeTrani, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and special envoy for multilateral North Korea talks who now serves as head of the Arlington-based Intelligence and National Security Alliance think tank, said the recent rise of Kim Jong Un's sister, Kim Yo Jong, was important to maintaining the continuity of the Kim dynasty.

"At the April Party meeting, he promoted his sister, Kim Yo Jong, to the Politburo as an alternate member. So, the Kim family, at least in name, will still be viewed by the public as in command," DeTrani told Newsweek.

Kim Jong Un's other full sibling, an older brother named Kim Jong Chol, has largely remained out of the spotlight. The trio, raised together in relative isolation in Switzerland, also have three, lesser-known elder half-sisters, Kim Hye Kyong, Kim Chun Song and Kim Sol Song—the latter of which has held political positions—as well as an older half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, according to the North Korea Leadership Watch blog. He was killed by poison at Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017.

There is no conclusive evidence about whether or not Kim Jong Un has children. Although outside media reports, as well as former NBA star Dennis Rodman's own reports, have claimed Kim Jong Un has at least one child, no official announcements have been made regarding the future of the secretive ruling family.

During his tenure, he accelerated his country's military might by adding bigger, more advanced nuclear and long-range missile tests to its arsenal. Kim Jong Un also made only minor alterations to the rigid authoritarian system established by his familial predecessors, expanding the economy in spite of international sanctions and formalizing his role as head of state.

He was also the first in his position to officially introduce his spouse, Ri Sol Ju, to the public and steadily elevated Kim Yo Jong, who went as far as to make statements on his behalf in recent weeks. Aside from several key figures such as First Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui, women have rarely been appointed to prominent positions in North Korea.

Kim Jong Un has made strides with diplomacy, as well, projecting a more accessible of a notoriously elusive state subject to widespread accusations of human rights abuses. He held meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also became the first head of North Korea to meet a sitting U.S. president, President Donald Trump. The two initially feuded in 2017, but changed course the next year, setting up the first of what would be three historic meetings that appeared to lay the groundwork for burying decades of mutual hostility as they built a prospective denuclearization-for-peace deal.

Later Tuesday, Trump too commented on speculation surrounding Kim Jong Un's health during a daily White House press briefing, telling reporters he's "had a very good relationship with him, I can only say I wish him well."

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People bow before the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on the occasion of the 108th birthday of late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, known as the "Day of the Sun," in Pyongyang on April 15. North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un's absence from the event, prompted mass speculation about his health. KIM WON JIN/AFP/Getty Images

A lack of progress and a U.S. unwillingness to lift sanctions ahead of denuclearization ultimately eroded budding U.S.-North Korea ties, however, and the Trump administration ignored Kim Jong Un's year-end deadline to cut a deal. Kim Jong Un warned at the beginning of 2020 that he no longer felt bound by his promise to pause nuclear and longer-range tests and vowed to debut a "new strategic weapon" that has yet to be unveiled.

Yet by April, Kim Yo Jong issued a message of thanks to Trump on Kim Jong Un's behalf for offering assistance to help North Korea battle COVID-19. The North Korean Foreign Ministry on Sunday denied that Kim Jong Un had sent a follow-up message after Trump said over the weekend that he had "received a nice note" from the leader.

North Korea has denied that the country has a single case of the novel coronavirus disease that has infected roughly two and a half million people worldwide, but some reports have cited anonymous citizens claiming the virus had already spread in North Korea, prompting international concern.

"In the face of the extraordinary threat to global health and welfare caused by the COVID pandemic, the United States has expeditiously facilitated the approval of assistance from U.S. and international aid and health organizations to counter and contain the spread of coronavirus in the DPRK," a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek Monday.

"Moreover, we've led the UN effort over the last year to expedite processing and approval of exemptions related to humanitarian aid addressing broader health concerns in the DPRK," the spokesperson added. "We have also actively supported and established in the UN sanctions regime related to the DPRK language that allows for humanitarian-related bank transactions."

This article has been updated to include remarks by President Donald Trump.