‘Kim Jong-un has been out of sight for nearly 20 days before’, Minister Kim Yeon-chul tells

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Kim Jong-un next to his sister Kim Yo-jong, who could be next in line to lead North Korea

Kim Jong-un may have missed a key holiday on 15 April because of concerns over the coronavirus, not because he is ill, South Korea’s minister for North Korean affairs said on Tuesday.

The North Korean leader’s absence from public ceremonies on the birth anniversary of his grandfather and founder of the country, Kim Il-sung, was unprecedented, and he has not been seen in public since. That has led to days of speculation over his health.

South Korean officials emphasise they have detected no unusual movements in North Korea and have cautioned against reports that Kim may be ill.

North Korea has said it has no confirmed cases of the coronavirus, but given the fact that the country has taken stringent steps to head off an outbreak, Kim’s absence from the ceremonies is not particularly unusual, unification minister Kim Yeon-chul, who oversees North Korea engagement, told lawmakers.

He said at a parliamentary hearing

It is true that he had never missed the anniversary for Kim Il-sung’s birthday since he took power, but many anniversary events including celebrations and a banquet had been cancelled because of coronavirus concerns.

He said there were at least two instances since mid-January where Kim Jong-un was out of sight for nearly 20 days. “I don’t think that’s particularly unusual given the current (coronavirus) situation.”

The US president, Donald Trump, said on Monday he has a good idea how Kim Jong-un is doing and hopes he is fine, but would not elaborate.

The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said he was aware of reports on Kim’s health and he was was paying close attention to developments.

North Korea had cancelled some large events, and imposed a border lockdown and quarantine measures in an effort to prevent an outbreak of the coronavirus.

But if Kim Jong-un is hiding out due to fears surrounding Covid-19, it would “puncture a hole in the state media narrative of how this crisis has been perfectly managed”, said Chad O’Carroll, CEO of Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.