Kim Jong Ill? Mystery as Kim Jong Un fails to attend North Korea’s annual Day of the Sun ceremony honouring his grandfather for the first time

  • Kim Jong Un was not seen at the deeply significant commemoration Wednesday
  • First time he has been absent since taking power after his father’s death in 2011 
  • It comes as the coronavirus pandemic has brought strict lockdown measures
  • Pyongyang claims it has no cases of the disease, but despite Kim’s 36 years, his heavy drinking, smoking and gorging on food puts him at a greater risk
  • Learn more about how to help people impacted by COVID

Kim Jong Un has failed to attend North Korea’s annual Day of the Sun ceremony for the first time, sparking speculation about his health amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The celebration and holiday to mark the birth of his grandfather Kim Il Sung on April 15 is deeply significant and Kim Jong Un has not missed it since taking power in 2011. 

Neither Kim Jong Un nor his sister Kim Yo Jong, believed to be his second-in-command, attended the ceremony at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, despite many of his senior officials appearing at the wreath laying.

Pyongyang claims it has zero cases of COVID-19, but the disease is rampant in South Korea and Kim may have been advised to practise social distancing. 

A photo released by the official North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows senior party and government officials and leading officials of military organs in the DPRK visiting the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang, North Korea

Kim has been highly active in recent weeks and has been pictured out inspecting his military, sometimes with officers wearing face masks, while he does not (pictured on March 9)

Although he is not in a high risk category for his age group, Kim’s heavy drinking, smoking and obesity would put the 36-year-old at grave risk if he were to catch coronavirus. 

Kim has been highly active in recent weeks and has been pictured out inspecting his military, sometimes with officers wearing face masks, while he does not. 

But political analysts believe his conspicuous absence on Wednesday could point towards a political message Kim wants to send, that he wants to step away from the ‘cult of personality’ surrounding the ruling dynasty. 

It also comes after a massive reshuffle of his inner circle on Saturday, in which a third of his leadership council were given their marching orders.

His sister, believed to be in her thirties, was also reinstated in her role as propaganda chief after being booted out over last year’s bungled talks with Donald Trump.

Senior officials visit the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun to commemorate the 108th birth anniversary of North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung on Wednesday

North Koreans are taught from birth to revere Kim Il Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong Il, father of the current leader, and all adults wear badges depicting one or both men 

People wearing face masks lay flowers before the statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang on Wednesday

‘Kim Jong Un wants to break away from the past, as well as the North’s traditional cult of personality,’ said Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector and researcher in Seoul.

‘His message is that Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung’s times are now over,’ he told AFP.

‘He wants to come across and brand himself as a leader who is modern and competent, rather than a descendant of his predecessors.

‘And he wants to gradually tone down the idolisation of the two late leaders as it goes against his agenda to brand the North as a ‘normal state’.’

The ruling party’s claim to legitimacy has its roots in Kim Il Sung’s fight against Korea’s Japanese colonisers and for years the North’s official propaganda has promoted Kim Jong Un’s resemblance to his grandfather, in appearance, manner, and even handwriting.

Kim Jong-Un’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong (left) has been reinstated to North Korea’s leadership council to preside over the police state’s expansive propaganda operation. Pictured: Kim Yo Jong walks ahead of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang in March

Kim Jong Un visits his air force on Sunday surrounded by officers wearing face masks amid the coronavirus pandemic

The state KCNA news agency did not mention him in a Thursday report on senior officials visiting the Kumsusan Palace to pay the ‘highest tribute’ to the two late leaders.

Since inheriting power in 2011, Kim has always gone to the sprawling mausoleum on the outskirts of the capital on their birth anniversaries.

Pictures Thursday in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper, the official mouthpiece of the ruling party, did not show him attending, although a floral basket was draped with a banner bearing his name.

But in another departure from normal practice, there appeared to be no outsize basket from Kim before the two men’s giant statues in Pyongyang on Wednesday, when citizens attended to bow before them.

‘This could be part of North Korea’s propaganda effort to distance Kim Jong Un from his grandfather’s and his father’s legacy and highlight his achievements, for what they are,’ said Rachel Lee, a former North Korea analyst in the US government.

Kim has presided over four of the North’s six nuclear tests and overseen a rapid advance in its weapons technology, developing missiles capable of reaching the entire US mainland.

A mosaic depicting supreme North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in eastern Pyongyang on Wednesday

A view of the Mansu Hill and the Mansu Hill Grand Monument in central Pyongyang on the Day of the Sun

That has seen his country subjected to multiple UN Security Council sanctions as a result.

Since 2018, he has taken part in a series of summits with US President Donald Trump and the South’s leader Moon Jae-in, although talks with Washington are currently deadlocked. 

Kim last appeared in state media at the weekend, when he presided over a meeting of the Workers’ Party political bureau on Saturday.

Lee played down the possibility of his absence being related to coronavirus concerns, saying he had been ‘quite active in recent weeks’.

Pyongyang has imposed strict restrictions to try to avoid the disease that emerged in neighbouring China and has since swept the world, at times quarantining thousands of citizens and hundreds of foreigners.

It insists it has not had a single case, although observers have expressed scepticism.

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