|North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, center, watches an artillery fire competition in an eastern region of the country, Thursday, according to the Korean Central News Agency report, Friday. It is speculated he has been out of Pyongyang to avoid possible infection of COVID-19. / Yonhap|
By Kim Rahn
Speculation is growing that North Korean leader Kim Jong-is staying away from Pyongyang out of concern over the coronavirus in the country's crowded capital, following reports that he has been observing military exercises across the country for weeks.
According to North Korea's state media reports, Kim has apparently been out of Pyongyang since Feb. 26 when he presided over a meeting of the ruling Workers' Party.
Media reports said Kim inspected joint exercises in Wonsan in the country's eastern province of Kangwon, Feb. 28. It is speculated he moved from Pyongyang to Wonsan the previous day.
On March 2, the North launched two short-range projectiles into the sea off the east coast as part of its exercises "under the guidance of Kim," according to the reports. It launched another three projectiles, March 9, from areas near the eastern town of Sondok, South Hamgyong Province ― Kim was also present.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Friday that Kim "guided" an artillery live-fire competition the previous day. It did not disclose details of the location, but hinted that it was in the eastern part of the country as it involved the 7th Army Corps, which is in charge of the defense for South Hamgyong Province and eastern coastal areas. It said Kim "guided the soldiers in the strong sea wind."
|An artillery competition was held on a beach on the eastern coast of North Korea, Thursday, according to the Korean Central News Agency, Friday. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un 'guided' the event. Yonhap|
It is rare for a North Korean leader to be away from the capital for such a long time ― or at least it is rare for such a long absence to be reported ― and analysts believe it is to do with fears of the virus.
"If Kim went to the Wonsan area at the end of February, he has been staying in the eastern region for over 10 days. It could be related to the COVID-19 situation in Pyongyang," Kyungnam University professor Kim Dong-yub said.
Japan's Asahi Shimbun, citing sources in Seoul, reported Wednesday that Kim has apparently been extremely cautious about infection. "Pyongyang has a high population density and a larger number of foreigners, so it seems Kim is avoiding staying there," one source said.
North Korea has so far claimed that it has had zero cases of COVID-19. It has been taking strict preventive measures since the end of January, such as closing the border with China and quarantining all people from other countries.
But many suspect the virus could have already spread there before such measures were taken. "Zero infection is not possible. Such a high level of alert may show there are already many patients," a defector was quoted as saying by the Asahi.