Following the public absence of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this week, rumors began to surface that he might be seriously ill or even dead, which triggered a global speculation Saturday when a fake social media hashtag, #KIMJONGUNDEAD, quickly went viral.
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The 36-year-old leader of the isolated nation has not been seen publicly in over two weeks. Amid reports that he was facing a health crisis following recent surgery and failing to appear for a high-profile celebration for the nation's armed services on Saturday only increased international curiosity.
However, reporters and experts have urged caution and denounced those peddling in dangerous rumors and unverified information.
CEO of the Korea Risk Group Chad O'Carroll warned that "for now there are too many varying indicators" to know for sure or report accurately, on the current situation of the leader, and asked to wait for information from the Korea state media.
Speculation about Kim's health problems spiked after CNN reported earlier this week, citing a U.S. official, that Washington is looking into intelligence that Kim is in "grave danger" after a surgery.
For its part, North Korean media outlets have not commented on the leader's whereabouts without putting out any reports on his public activity amid persisting speculation over his health.
This week they put out reports on Kim sending diplomatic letters and conveying gifts to honored citizens but stopped short of providing reports or photos featuring his public activity.
Kim was last seen in public on April 11 and Saturday Yonhap News Agency, based in Seoul, reported that Kim remained "out of the public sight Saturday, as the reclusive nation's tightly controlled media focused their coverage on the founding anniversary of its armed forces."
Meanwhile, according to one anonymous South Korean official who spoke to Reuters, their intelligence is that Kim is alive and he would likely appear in public soon to demonstrate it. A U.S. official familiar with intelligence on the matter indicated the same, indicating to Reuters that "Kim was known to have health problems but they had no reason to conclude he was seriously ill or unable eventually to reappear in public."
While the world is facing a global crisis from the new coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19, this could also be another reason why the North Korean leader is taking precautions to avoid contagion after his surgery.