SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his first public appearance in 20 days as he celebrated the completion of a fertilizer factory near Pyongyang, state media said Saturday, ending an absence that had triggered global rumors that he may be seriously ill.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, reported that Kim attended the ceremony Friday in Sunchon with other senior officials, including his sister Kim Yo Jong, who many analysts predict would take over if her brother is suddenly unable to rule.
State media showed videos and photos of Kim wearing a black Mao suit and constantly smiling, walking around facilities, applauding, cutting a huge red ribbon with a scissor handed by his sister, and smoking inside and outside of buildings while talking with other officials.
Seemingly thousands of workers, many of them masked, stood in lines at the massive complex, roaring in celebration and releasing balloons into the air. A sign installed on a stage where Kim sat with other senior officials read: “Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory; Completion Ceremony; May 1, 2020.”
There was no definite sign that Kim was in discomfort, although there were moments where his walking looked a bit stiff. He was shown moving without a walking stick, like the one he used in 2014 when he was recovering from a presumed ankle surgery. However, he was also seen riding a green electric cart, which appeared similar to a vehicle he used in 2014.
It was Kim’s first public appearance since April 11, when he presided over a ruling Workers’ Party meeting to discuss the coronavirus and reappoint his sister as an alternate member of the powerful decision-making Political Bureau of the party’s Central Committee. That move confirmed her substantial role in the government.
North Korea has said it hasn't had a single virus case, but the claim is questioned by many outside experts.
It wasn’t immediately clear what had caused Kim’s absence.
Speculation about his health swirled after he missed the April 15 birthday celebration for his late grandfather Kim Il Sung, the country’s most important holiday, for the first time since taking power in 2011.
The possibility of high-level instability raised troubling questions about the future of the secretive, nuclear-armed country that has been steadily building an arsenal meant to threaten the U.S. mainland while diplomacy between Kim and President Donald Trump has stalled.
Some experts say South Korea, as well as its regional neighbors and ally Washington, must begin preparing for the possible chaos that could come if Kim is sidelined by health problems or even dies. Worst-case scenarios include North Korean refugees flooding South Korea or China, or military hard-liners letting loose nuclear weapons.
“The world is largely unprepared for instability in North Korea,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “Washington, Seoul and Tokyo need tighter coordination on contingency plans, while international organizations need more resources and less controversy over the role of China.”
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which deals with inter-Korean affairs, confirmed Kim’s visit to the fertilizer factory and said it was part of his efforts to emphasize economic development. The ministry called for discretion on information related to North Korea, saying that the “groundless” rumors of past weeks have caused “unnecessary confusion and cost” for South Korea’s society and financial markets.
South Korea’s government, which has a mixed record of tracking Pyongyang’s ruling elite, repeatedly downplayed speculation that Kim, believed to be 36, was in poor health following surgery.
The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in said it detected no unusual signs in North Korea or any emergency reaction by its ruling party, military or Cabinet. Seoul said it believed Kim was still managing state affairs but staying at an unspecified location outside Pyongyang, the capital.
The KCNA report said workers at the fertilizer factory broke into “thunderous cheers” for Kim, who it said is guiding the nation in a struggle to build a self-reliant economy in the face of a “head wind” by “hostile forces.”
The report didn’t mention any direct comment toward Washington or Seoul.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump declined to comment about Kim’s reappearance but said he would “have something to say about it at the appropriate time.”
During his nearly three-week absence, state media reported that Kim was carrying out routine activities outside public view, such as sending greetings to the leaders of Syria, Cuba and South Africa, and expressing gratitude to workers building tourist facilities in the coastal town of Wonsan, where some speculated he was staying.
Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute, said the video footage of Kim suggested that he is recovering from some sort of medical setback that affected his walking, possibly related to his ankle.
In 2014, Kim vanished from the public eye for nearly six weeks before reappearing with a cane. South Korea’s spy agency said at the time that he had a cyst removed from his ankle.
Analysts say Kim's health could become an increasing factor in years ahead: He’s overweight, smokes and drinks, and has a family history of heart issues.
If he’s suddenly unable to rule, some analysts have said his sister, believed to be around four years younger than her brother, would be installed as leader to continue Pyongyang’s heredity dynasty that began after World War II.
But others question whether core members of North Korea’s elite, mostly men in their 60s or 70s, would be able to accept a young and untested female leader who lacks military credentials. Some predict a collective leadership or violent power struggles.
Following an unusually provocative run in missile and nuclear tests in 2017, Kim used the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea to initiate negotiations with Washington and Seoul later that year. That led to a surprising series of summits, with Kim and Trump meeting three times
But negotiations have faltered in recent months over disagreements in exchanging sanctions relief and disarmament steps, raising doubts about whether Kim would ever fully deal away an arsenal he likely sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.
Kim entered 2020 vowing to build up his nuclear stockpile and defeat sanctions through economic “self-reliance.” Some experts say the North’s self-imposed lockdown amid the coronavirus crisis could potentially hamper his ability to mobilize people for labor.