When North Korea broke a three-week silence on leader Kim Jong-un’s public activity yesterday, it offered no clue as to where he had been during a period of intense global speculation about his health and whereabouts, or why he was hidden from the public for so long.
Instead, state media simply showed him surrounded by aides and appearing confident at a gleaming fertilizer factory that is believed by outside experts to be part of a secret nuclear weapons program.
While much remains a mystery about Kim’s condition, the abrupt re-emergence of the relaxed and smiling leader was an obvious choreography of key messages from the secretive government: Kim is the supreme leader in full control of a drive to improve the impoverished country’s food security and economy, amid tough international sanctions and the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The official Rodong Sinmun yesterday devoted three of its six pages to touting Kim’s leadership, crediting him for what it called “prosperity and self-reliance.”
Reuters could not verify the accuracy of official accounts or the authenticity of pictures from the event.
The sprawling complex is the result of Kim’s vision to build a modern factory that would support agricultural production and make progress in automating its chemical industry, former North Korean premier Pak Pong-ju said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony where Kim reappeared.
Kim’s appearance at the Sunchon fertilizer plant, which official media said occurred on Friday, was an example of “field guidance” — a key part of Kim’s public persona, where he presides over a major industrial or social project event, or at military drills involving strategic weapons, such as ballistic missiles or tactical warfare.
His second public visit this year to the site 50km north of the capital, Pyongyang, included a sizeable audience of officials from the army, the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea and the local community. Many wore masks in an apparent precaution against the coronavirus.
“Agricultural production is a top priority, which has a direct impact on the lives of the people,” said Koh Yu-hwan, president of the Korea Institute for National Unification, a South Korean government think-tank.
Kim’s sudden return was “a strategy to be in the center of world news without resorting to nuclear or missile tests,” Koh said.
The phosphate fertilizer factory in Sunchon, under construction since June 2017, has received much attention from North Korea’s leaders.
International observers have said that the plant is part of the North’s clandestine pursuit of uranium extraction for use in nuclear weapons, as the mineral can be a byproduct of making phosphate fertilizer.
There is strong evidence the factory is involved in uranium extraction, said a report this month by the California-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
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