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South Korean officials caution against reports North Korean leader Kim ill

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SEOUL (Reuters) — South Korean officials emphasize they have detected no unusual movements in North Korea and caution against reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be ill or is being isolated because of coronavirus concerns.

At a closed-door forum on Sunday, South Korea’s Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul, who oversees North Korea engagement, said Seoul had the intelligence capabilities to say with confidence there were no indications of anything unusual.

Rumors and speculation over Kim Jong Un’s health began after he did not appear in public at a key state holiday on April 15. He has since remained out of sight.

Experts have cautioned that Kim has disappeared from state media coverage before, and that gathering accurate information in North Korea is difficult.

South Korean media last week reported that Kim may have undergone cardiovascular surgery, or was in isolation to avoid exposure to the coronavirus.

Unification Minister Kim cast doubt on the report of surgery, arguing that the hospital mentioned did not have the capabilities for such an operation.

Still, Yoon Sang-hyun, chairman of the foreign and unification committee in South Korea’s National Assembly, told a gathering of experts on Monday that Kim Jong Un’s absence from the public eye suggests “he has not been working as normally.”

“There has not been any report showing he’s making policy decisions as usual since April 11, which leads us to assume that he is either sick or being isolated because of coronavirus concerns,” Yoon said.

North Korea has said it has no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, but some international experts have cast doubt on that assertion.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in vowed on Monday to step up cooperation to help North Korea prevent the spread of the coronavirus but made no mention of Kim’s health or whereabouts.

“I will find a path for the most realistic and practical inter-Korean cooperation,” Moon told a meeting with senior aides on the second anniversary of his first summit with Kim.

“The Covid-19 crisis could mean a new opportunity for inter-Korean cooperation, and that’s the most urgent and pressing task.”

North Korea’s state media last reported on Kim’s whereabouts when he presided over a meeting on April 11.

On Monday, it once again showed no new photos of Kim or reports on his whereabouts.

However, it did say he had sent a message of gratitude to workers building a tourist resort in Wonsan, an area where some South Korean media reports have said Kim may be staying.

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