People watch a television news broadcast showing file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at a railway station in Seoul on April 21, 2020. Photo: AFP

By Bloomberg

The US is seeking details about Kim Jong Un’s health after receiving information that the North Korean leader was in critical condition after undergoing cardiovascular surgery last week, US officials said.

The Trump administration wasn’t sure of Kim’s current condition, said the officials, who asked not to be identified. One of the officials said the White House was told that Kim underwent surgery last week and took a turn for the worse.

CNN had earlier reported, citing a US official with direct knowledge of the matter, that Kim may be in “grave danger” after the surgery. The White House declined to comment.

North Korea’s state media reported on April 11 that Kim attended a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea and reported the next day that Kim inspected a military unit, but without revealing the date of that visit.

The Daily NK, a Seoul-based website that gathers information from informants inside the isolated nation, separately reported that Kim underwent a “cardiovascular surgical procedure” and was now mostly recovered. It was impossible to immediately verify the report, which the Daily NK said was based on one person inside North Korea.

Kim was not believed to be critically ill, Reuters reported, citing an official with the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department.

The health of North Korea’s leader is one of the state’s most closely guarded secrets, typically only known by a handful of people in the inner circle of leadership.

Speculation about Kim had been growing since his unprecedented absence from April 15 celebrations for the birthday of his grandfather and state founder Kim Il Sung, one of the biggest days on the North Korean calendar.

Kim, 36 and a heavy smoker, has been shown in state media in recent months appearing at military drills and riding a white horse on the country’s revered Mt. Paektu, where state propaganda says his grandfather used as a guerrilla base to fight Japanese colonial occupiers.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Friday it was “inappropriate” to speculate about the reasons for Kim’s absence. Kim has made 17 public appearances this year that were mentioned in state media — at a pace of a little more than one a week — the ministry said. That’s slightly down from 84 public appearances last year.

North Korea has been battling to prevent a coronavirus outbreak, which has led to cutting back on celebrations and some other major events and for cadres to appear in protective masks in public events with Kim.

The Daily NK is part of a group of not-for-profit agencies affiliated with the Unification Ministry, and has occasionally been contacted by Seoul officials for information.

There has been little time for him to groom a successor but during his time as leader, Kim raised the status of his younger sister Kim Yo Jong as a key player in the secretive state. She was thrust into the global spotlight when she served as envoy to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and became the first member of the immediate ruling family to visit Seoul. –Bloomberg