PYONGYANG, North Korea -- The U.S. is monitoring intelligence that North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, is in "grave danger" after a surgery, according to U.S. officials who spoke with both the Associated Press and CNN.
One White House official said the U.S. had information that Kim may have undergone surgery and that complications may have rendered him “incapacitated or worse.” But, the official stressed that the U.S. had nothing to confirm the surgery had taken place or that any complications had occurred.
“We just don’t know,” said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. None of the officials who spoke to the AP and CNN would elaborate on where the information came from or when it had been received.
The South Korean government's Unification Ministry on Tuesday said it too was looking into reports that Kim was in fragile condition but a spokesperson added that "no unusual developments have been detected inside North Korea.”
Daily NK, an online newspaper based in South Korea that focuses on North Korea, reported that Kim underwent heart surgery on April 12 because of "excessive smoking, obesity, and overwork" and was recovering in a villa in Hyangsan County following his procedure. The newspaper suggested his condition was improving.
Speculation about Kim’s health and well-being has been raised ever since he missed the celebration of his late grandfather and state founder Kim Il Sung on April 15. He had been seen four days before that at a government meeting.
Credible information about North Korea and especially its leadership is difficult to obtain and even intelligence agencies have been wrong about its inner workings in the past.
"There have been a number of recent rumors about Kim's health (smoking, heart, and brain). If Kim is hospitalized, it would explain why he wasn't present on the important April 15th celebrations," said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former CIA deputy division chief for North Korea. "But, over the years, there have been a number of false health rumors about Kim Jong-un or his father. We'll have to wait and see."
Gathering intelligence out of North Korea is notoriously difficult -- one of the most challenging targets for U.S. intelligence.
North Korea tightly controls any information surrounding its leader, who is treated almost like a deity within the country. His absences from official state media often spark speculation and rumors about his health.
North Korea has no free press and is often a black hole when it comes to the country's leadership. Analysts are heavily reliant on scanning state media dispatches and watching propaganda videos for any semblance of a clue.
Kim last appeared in North Korean state media on April 11. April 15 -- North Korea's most important holiday, the anniversary of the birth of the country's founding father, Kim Il Sung -- came and went without any official mention of Kim Jong Un's movements.
Experts are unsure of what to make of Kim's absence from any festivities celebrating his grandfather. When North Korean leaders have not shown up to these important celebrations in the past, it has portended major developments. But it has also turned out to be nothing.
Kim Jong Il's absence from a parade celebrating North Korea's 60th anniversary in 2008 was followed by rumblings that he was in poor health. It was later revealed he had a stroke, after which his health continued to decline until his death in 2011.
Kim Jong Un disappeared from the public eye for more than a month in 2014, which also prompted speculation about his health. He returned sporting a cane, and days later South Korean intelligence said that he had a cyst removed from his ankle.
"It's easy to be wrong on this one," said John Delury, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul.