TOKYO -- Evidence that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is still alive and in the coastal resort of Wonsan is mounting, as satellite images showed his train apparently traveled there in the past few days, and U.S. and South Korean officials said they did not believe he had died.
Rumors of the leader's possible demise have been swirling since he skipped celebrations for his grandfather's birthday April 15, and after a South Korea media report said he had undergone a cardiovascular procedure April 12 in a hospital outside Pyongyang and was recuperating in a nearby villa.
But U.S. and South Korean intelligence services remain skeptical of reports that Kim is dead or gravely ill, according to three government officials familiar with the matter.
"We understand that Chairman Kim Jong Un has been in Wonsan this week," said a South Korean official who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters.
Another official said that Kim's health is among the North's most closely guarded secrets, but noted that neither government has evidence of his death.
Commercial satellite images published by the 38 North website, affiliated with the Stimson Center, showed what appeared to be Kim's personal, 275-yard train at a railway station dedicated to the Kim family in Wonsan last week.
"The train's presence does not prove the whereabouts of the North Korean leader or indicate anything about his health, but it does lend weight to reports that Kim is staying at an elite area on the country's eastern coast," Martyn Williams, Peter Makowsky and Jenny Town wrote in their report.
To be sure, something strange is happening in the intensely secretive state.
Thae Yong Ho, a former senior North Korean diplomat who defected to the South in 2016, said in a statement it was "unprecedented" that Kim did not appear to lay a wreath at the Kumsusan Palace of Sun where the bodies of his grandfather and father are embalmed.
But the fact that Kim has not been seen in public for two weeks is not in itself unusual, falling within the "normal range" of absences for the North Korean leader, noted Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former North Korea open source intelligence analyst for the U.S. government.
"His absence from the Kumsusan Palace on Kim Il Sung's birthday was unusual, but that alone is not evidence enough to say Kim Jong Un is in trouble," Lee said.
She added that North Korea's silence since then should not be overinterpreted. "North Korea does not react to rumors about the leader's health," she said.
The Daily NK website first reported that Kim had undergone an operation April 12 at a hospital near Mount Myohyang and was recuperating at a nearby villa.
But it is very unlikely Kim would have left the hospital and traveled by train to Wonsan, more than 150 miles away, if he really was gravely ill, nor would there be any reason to transport his body across the country if he had died and officials wanted to maintain secrecy.
The stakes were dramatically raised when CNN reported an unnamed U.S. official as saying Washington was monitoring intelligence suggesting Kim was in "grave danger" after undergoing surgery. But officials in Seoul and Washington soon downplayed or contradicted that report.
On Saturday, Reuters reported that China had dispatched a team including medical experts "to advise on" Kim, citing three unnamed sources, but the news agency cautioned that it was "unable to immediately determine what the trip by the Chinese team signaled in terms of Kim's health."
A Japanese magazine fueled the rumor mill by citing a single unnamed Chinese medical source as saying Kim was in a "vegetative state" after an operation went wrong, while a Hong Kong TV executive posted on social media that Kim was dead.
A Section on 04/27/2020