Rodong Sinmun published an article on Monday about a “technician contest” that is currently underway in North Korea. Based on the article, the competition appears to pit tradespeople, such as welders or plasterers, against one other to demonstrate their skills. The article is noteworthy, however, because of what it tells us about speculation concerning North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s poor health. 

The article noted that “technicians who took part in the advanced welding contest at the construction site of the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Plant showed their spirit right from the beginning. This was a fierce contest that raged day and night between selected technicians from several units who were determined to erect the factory as soon as possible and bring joy to the [North Korean communist] party.” 

The article went on to say that the “technicians fully demonstrated the vitality of the competition by actively making use of practical techniques. The technicians competing in the advanced welding contest made a great contribution to the construction of the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Plant.” 

The wording of the article suggests that the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Plant was completed thanks to an advanced welding contest, which was part of the broader technicians’ competition. 

The article does not mention the date the competition began, but there are some hints. According to the report, the contest involving plasterers began “at the construction site of a retirement home for military veterans on May 5.” If we assume that the competitions in each category started at around the same time, it appears likely that the advanced welding contest also kicked off at some point in early May. 

In fact, competitions for technicians are an annual event in North Korea. A quick search through past articles published by the Rodong Sinmun and videos posted by Korean Central Television (KCTV) reveals that similar contests took place between May 17 and June 29 in 2018, and ran from May 23 to July 3 in 2019. It would make sense that the competitions in each category also began in early May alongside the start of the plastering contest. 

Why this is important

The key point here lies in the fact that the competition focused on completing construction work on the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Plant. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attended a ceremony to commemorate the construction of this factory on May 1. At the time, North Korean media reported on Kim attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony and footage of the event was widely broadcast on KCTV.

Kim’s participation in the ceremony was likely part of an effort by the regime to refute rumors that he was in ill-health. In fact, those who claimed the rumors had been unfounded suggested that the North Korean leader had simply been resting or engaged in non-public activities before showing up at the factory’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. 

Monday’s Rodong Sinmun’s article suggests that the advanced welding technician’s contest was involved in completing the construction of the fertilizer plant. Indeed, if the factory was fully finished by May 1, North Korea would instead be expected to focus on the factory’s achievements in producing fertilizer. 

North Korea’s description of the technicians’ competition raises the possibility that the completion ceremony for the factory on May 1 was hastily put together. In other words, the ribbon-cutting ceremony was improvised at the last minute for the sake of giving Kim a public venue to resurface at. Daily NK, in fact, reported that North Korea suddenly ordered the ribbon-cutting ceremony to be held just two days before the event. This may have been because the authorities were pressured to quickly lay speculation about the leader’s ill health to rest. 

Kim’s infrequent public appearances

Since attending the factory’s completion ceremony, Kim has made only three other appearances in public: an expanded meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC) (May 24); a politburo meeting (June 8); and a preliminary meeting of the CMC (June 24). Even when we include his appearance at the fertilizer factory, this amounts to a mere four public outings in the space of two months. All of his appearances took place indoors, with exception to the ribbon-cutting ceremony. 

Kim’s extended absence has led to further speculation about Kim’s health. There is, however, no evidence that he is suffering from a major illness. North Korea released footage of Kim at both the expanded CMC and politburo meetings and there was nothing unusual about his appearance. The fall in his public appearances could also be related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

One question worth examining is whether Kim has exhibited any minor symptoms since April, when the rumors about his health first began. As always, it is important to be skeptical about news originating from within North Korea, so a careful approach is needed when examining such a question. 

The truth behind the speculation about Kim’s health is not a black and white question. Health issues exist on a spectrum. The health of North Korea’s leader is intimately connected to the country’s future, so it deserves continued attention. Trying to score points by arguing about what theory is true must not be allowed to distort the broader picture and get in the way of rational observation and research.

Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

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