Ji himself is North Korean and has friends and family in the country still. He is of a family of low caste, or
songbun, with no known ties to any senior officials. Ji escaped despite having multiple limbs amputated as a child, making the arduous journey from North Korea across China and into the South especially difficult. Now a lawmaker, he rose to international prominence after appearing as a presidential guest at President Donald Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address.
Ji was elected in South Korea’s national legislative election on April 15, the first in-person voting of its scale to occur amid the current Chinese coronavirus epidemic. The 14 days scientists
believe it takes for the virus to show symptoms elapsed this week; South Korean officials confirmed no known coronavirus infections occurred from human-to-human contact during the election.
In addition to Ji, South Koreans elected another defector, former diplomat Thae Jong-ho, to their National Assembly. Ji was elected via proportional vote; Thae became the first North Korean refugee to be elected as a candidate in the direct voting system. Both represent conservative political parties.
Ji’s remarks followed remarks by Taiwan’s national security chief suggesting that Kim Jong-un is “sick” and may not survive.
Speculation over Kim’s health reached a fever pitch after CNN
published an anonymously sourced report that Kim was in “grave danger” after allegedly undergoing cardiac surgery. Subsequent reports in South Korean outlets such as Dong-A Ilbo and JoongAng Ilbo suggested that Kim, instead, may be suffering from Chinese coronavirus infection. The former outlet claimed a source believed he was injured at a missile test.
Other reports suggested that Kim was healthy but feared being infected with the virus. Satellite images from Wonsan, a port city Kim has attempted and failed to turn into a resort destination, indicate that Kim’s personal train is in the city and his private yachts are active, a sign that he is alive and merely enjoying a getaway.
North Korea claims to have not documented a single case of Chinese coronavirus officially, making it difficult for Kim to admit to having to quarantine if he was exposed to the virus in any way, including meetings with Chinese officials. While denying any cases, North Korea has shut its borders and announced the construction of a large hospital in Pyongyang, suggesting a need for greater healthcare infrastructure.
“We have intelligence capacity that allows us to say confidently that there are no unusual signs,” Kim Yeon-chul, South Korae’s unification minister,
said on Tuesday. Kim referred to the rumors as “fake news” and reiterated Seoul’s loud insistence that Kim is healthy.
North Korean state media have not addressed the rumors in any way. Last week, North Korea
claimed Kim was active, sending birthday greetings to various people in the country and diplomatic greetings to international allies. On Friday – a communist holiday known as International Workers’ Day – North Korean media barely mentioned Kim, instead publishing effusive communist propaganda to celebrate.
“At a time when all the people are vigorously opening a broad avenue of socialist advance under the banner of self-reliance, we are significantly commemorating the 130th May Day, the international holiday of the working people in the world,” an article in
Rodong Sinmun, the North Korean national newspaper, read. The article was titled “Let All the Working People Vigorously Open Road of Advance in Frontal Offensive for Making Breakthrough, Glorifying History and Traditions of Heroic Struggle.”
“In this new century of Juche [the North Korean religion of ‘self-reliance’], their dignity, position and role are rapidly rising under the wise leadership of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un,” the article continued. “Only our working people are leading the most worthwhile and proud life in the world, demonstrating their independent dignity under the leadership of the great Party.”
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