Kim Jong-un inspected typhoon damage with a cob of corn in his hand on Thursday – scotching the latest rumours that he is gravely ill or dead.
North Korea’s supreme leader gave an upbeat verdict on the storm damage as he examined rice paddies and bean crops in the coastal province where Typhoon Bavi made landfall early yesterday.
The dictator’s health has been the subject of persistent speculation in recent months, which resurfaced this week when an aide to a former South Korean president claimed that Kim was in a coma.
South Korea’s spy agency separately claimed Kim had delegated some authority to his sister Kim Yo-jong to relieve his ‘governance stress’.
Kim’s state-planned economy has been under strain in recent weeks because of heavy rains and floods, as well as measures to contain the coronavirus – although the North has not admitted to having any cases of the disease.
Many of the officials who accompanied Kim on his visit to South Hwanghae province were wearing masks, but the dictator himself was not.
Kim said the scale of damage was smaller than expected after he had ‘worried a lot and he feels it is fortunate’, according to official media.
He also praised ruling party organisations and government officials for implementing measures that ‘minimised the damage in the agricultural field’.
State TV carried unusual near-live coverage of the typhoon’s trajectory as it struck the peninsula, interrupting regular programmes with footage of the storm’s impact.
The North is vulnerable to flooding because many mountains and hills have long been deforested, allowing water to flow downhill unchecked.
Trees were uprooted in Pyongyang, including along Mirae Scientists’ Street, one of Kim’s showpiece developments.
In South Korea, the storm caused scattered damage to homes and grounded hundreds of domestic flights, but no casualties were reported.
International aid workers in North Korea are currently unable to travel outside Pyongyang due to coronavirus restrictions.
North Korea has not announced a single case of the virus, although there is widespread scepticism about the regime’s claims.
Last month Pyongyang imposed a lockdown on the city of Kaesong near the DMZ, claiming a defector who had returned was suspected of carrying the virus.
The restrictions were lifted earlier this month and the infection was never confirmed.
Kim presided over a meeting of a top committee of the ruling Workers’ Party this week and warned of ‘defects in the state emergency anti-epidemic work’.
The dictator addressed ‘some shortcomings’ in the preventive efforts and called for stronger measures to eliminate the ‘defects’, official media said.
Kim’s appearance came after a former aide to late South Korean president Kim Dae-jung said he thought the North’s leader was in a coma, though without offering any evidence.
Separate claims emerged in the South that Kim was turning over more authority to his sister, the leader’s only close relative with a public role in politics.
In a closed-door briefing to South Korean lawmakers on Thursday, Seoul’s spy agency said the stress of managing state affairs had led Kim to delegate some of his powers.
Ha Tae-keung, an lawmaker on a parliamentary intelligence committee, said the leader’s sister Kim Yo-jong was helping to run the regime.
However, the South’s spy agency has a patchy record in pronouncements about the North and analysts have played down rumours about Kim’s health.
Earlier this year Kim was absent from public view for nearly three weeks, missing a key celebration in April for the birthday of his grandfather, the North’s founder.
His absence from the most important day in the North’s political calendar prompted widespread speculation, including rumours that he was seriously ill or dead.
Official media was slow to quash the speculation, providing no concrete signs of life beyond reports of letters sent in Kim’s name.
But Kim finally resurfaced in May and subsequently hosted a meeting to discuss the country’s nuclear capabilities.