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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C) watches a firepower strike drill by the North Korean army's long-range artillery sub-units on March 9, 2020, in this photo released by the North's official Korean Central News Agency the next day. The report came one day after South Korea's military said the North fired three short-range projectiles off its east coast in what appears to be part of its artillery strike drill involving multiple rocket launchers. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)
By Yi Wonju
SEOUL, March 13 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's attendance at this week's artillery fire exercise has added to speculation that he has been away from Pyongyang for an extended period of time due possibly to coronavirus concerns.
According to state media reports, Kim supervised the coastal artillery drill on Thursday, just days after he oversaw a similar exercise on March 9. These drills followed two more artillery exercises held on March 2 and Feb. 28 with the leader in attendance.
The North did not disclose the location of Thursday's exercise. But considering the three previous drills took place either in the eastern coastal cities of Wonsan or Sondok, the latest one is also believed to have happened along the east coast.
The short interval between these drills has raised speculation that Kim might be staying in east coast regions, rather than shuttling between Pyongyang and the east coast. Some media reports have speculated that he could be away from the capital city due to coronavirus fears.
Kim's last public appearance unrelated to the military was when he presided over an expanded politburo meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party to discuss measures to ensure the coronavirus doesn't spread into the country.
State media did not say when the meeting took place, but considering Kim's activity is usually reported a day after it happened, the meeting is believed to have been held on Feb. 28, the same day when Kim attended an artillery exercise.
An official of South Korea's unification ministry also said that the politburo meeting could also have taken place in a place other than Pyongyang "given that the politburo meeting and the drill have been held shortly after another."
Experts said Kim's absence from Pyongyang may be related to the new COVID-19 virus.
"Given that around 10,000 people are being quarantined in the North, an outbreak in Pyongyang is also possible ... we have to keep the possibility open that he is staying away from Pyongyang because of the spread of the virus," said Yang Moo-jin, professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
Yang said, however, that such a possibility is not high, and Kim's absence from Pyongyang "can also be seen as an expression of his confidence over the new virus ... that the virus situation is possible to overcome."
In late January, North Korea declared the launch of a national emergency system against the new virus, calling such preventive efforts a "political matter" that could determine the fate of the country.
Since then, it has stepped up efforts to prevent an outbreak of the COVID-19 virus in the country, shutting down its border with China, where the virus originated, and toughening quarantine procedures for foreigners.
Concerns are lingering, however, that North Korea could be vulnerable as it shares a long and porous border with China, where the virus originated, and lacks key medical supplies and infrastructure to test and treat infected people.
Source: Yonhap News Agency
Speculation grows North Korean leader has been away from Pyongyang for weeks
Yonhap News Agency - 14:30 March 13, 2020