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And Harley Street surgeon Nadey Hakim also shared details of his extraordinary trip, during which he was struck by the fanatical reverence with which the country’s people regard the Supreme Leader. Together with his son David, who is also a doctor, Mr Hakim embarked upon a trip to the Hermit State after making tentative contact with the North Korean embassy in London to offer them a 44-kilogram bust he had made of Kim’s head. He retains contacts within the embassy, and as a result, contacted Express.co.uk to share his belief that the reports of the 36-year-old’s death which swept the world earlier this month were wide of the mark.
Mr Hakim, who lives in Hampstead in North London, said: “I think I would conclude that the suspicion that Kim Jong-un is dead cannot be true.
“I think he had some minor surgery and he had to recover for three weeks in his country home.
“This suspicion of something happening is very attractive to the West.”
Mr Hakim, who specialises in pancreas transplants, suggested if Kim had undergone some sort of procedure it would be understandable, given he was “not the most healthy of individuals”.
He added: “He smokes, he’s overweight, he’s young and he eats a lot of chocolate, Swiss chocolate.”
Explaining the chain of circumstances which led to his visit, in 2018, Mr Hakim said: “I have this hobby which is to sculpt, which I have been doing for many years.
“I’ve done a few leaders including Boris, Cameron, Theresa May etc and one day I woke up and I was reading the papers I saw a picture of Kim Jong-un laughing and I liked this expression. I thought why not do it, so I did.
“I’ve been sculpting for 25 years. Some sculptures can take me months and I was never happy.
“This one, I finished very quickly and I had very little to change.
“And then I said what am I meant to do with it now?
“So I looked on the internet for the phone number for the North Korean embassy in London.
“I called the number and as expected, they hardly ever answer the phone and when they did, somebody said to send an email and put the phone down.
“So I sent an email, just three lines: ‘I said I had just completed a bust of your Supreme Leader if you are interested let me know and I can show it to you’.”
The embassy called him back within minutes, and the member of staff he spoke to was initially suspicious.
Mr Hakim, 62, explained: “They said: ‘Why did you do this sculpture of our Supreme leader?’, in a quite aggressive way. In other words how dare you?
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“I said I had a lot of respect for him – what could I tell them, I had to tell them something nice – and they then said it was the perfect answer, thank you so much, when can we come to see it?”
Embassy officials visited Mr Hakim at his home that day to see the bust for themselves, and it was agreed he and David, 25, who was at the time a medical student, would come to Pyongyang to deliver it, with the trip timed to coincide with a medical conference.
He said: “The day before I travelled they came to my house and they brought special layers of wrapping, different colours, tissue paper, which they wanted me to wrap it with.
“They wrapped it themselves, layer after layer, and made sure they travelled with me to the airport.
“We flew into Beijing and had to spend one night in a hotel because there were no more flights to North Korea.”
Not that their journey was completely straightforward.
Mr Hakim explained: “We went back to the airport the next day to fly and Air China said they were sorry but we couldn’t take it to North Korea because it was more than 40 kilograms.”
However, the airline swiftly relented after Mr Hakim explained who the 50-centimetre sculpture was actually of.
On arrival, they were stunned to find a host of officials waiting for them, together with photographers ready to capture the moment.
From there, they were taken for a special ceremony at the University of Pyong Yang attended by the Ministers of Health and Education – although not Kim himself.
Mr Hakim opened it in front of them, prompting a round of applause which he has a brief clip of for posterity, and within weeks it was taken to the Museum of International Friendship, where it now resides.
He said: “It’s a beautiful museum which is dedicated to all the presents which were offered to foreign dignitaries to North Korea.
“You have presents from Nixon, there is a full train offered by Stalin – it’s a very interesting place.
“It is extraordinary to have one of my sculptures in Pyongyang having just started by pure chance really.
“When I got back to London with my son he said: “Do you realise where we’ve just been?'”
He is also confident his bust was seen and approved by Kim himself, adding: “If you upset this guy your head is cut off – they obviously had to get his permission and show it to him first.
“They are very discreet. But when I left, the minister told me it went to his palace – they don’t even know where it is – and it went to the museum.”
As for his impression of the actual country, Mr Hakim said: “It is actually much better than I thought to be honest.
“First we landed at the airport. It is actually quite a decent airport – it is clean, fairly modern.
“Obviously your phone does not work – you can use it to take pictures but there is no internet.
“It was a beautiful 13 or 14-storey hotel. I stayed with my son in the same street.
“They’ve got good hospitals, people are not starving like it says in the papers, everything is paid for.
“I was very happy to see the way they lived and to see after all they are human beings like us and they are nice people, and they want to have a good relationship with the West as long as the West is nice to them.
“I’m far from being a communist but I am humanist and I think they are really genuinely nice people.
“I would love to go back and I was actually hoping to go back soon but this coronavirus situation has meant that was not possible.
He is God over there – he is literally God on Earth
“I wanted to go to the museum again to see for myself the sculpture.”
Nevertheless, Mr Hakim was intensely aware of the cult of personality which characterises the nation’s attitude towards its leaders.
He said: “He is God over there – he is literally God on Earth, a secular God.”
Mr Hakim also suggested the prospect of a denuclearised North Korea, as envisaged by US President Donald Trump – who he has also made a sculpture of – was remote.
He added: “It’s going to be difficult because what they are after is the reunification of Korea.
“The answer they give is why should they give up their nuclear weapons when there are so many in the south?”
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