Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that the U.S. mission of denuclearization in North Korea will remain the same no matter who leads the regime, amid conflicting reports on Kim Jong Un’s health.
Some reports suggest that the North Korean leader, 36, is recovering from heart surgery, while others from South Korea have said Kim has been absent from certain events to limit exposure to the novel coronavirus.
“I don’t have anything to add to the status of Chairman Kim,” Pompeo told reporters Wednesday, while noting that “we did have the opportunity to interact with a number of North Korean officials,” including Kim’s sister and “others.”
“Our mission remains the same regardless of leadership,” Pompeo continued, noting that the U.S. was working toward “full denuclearization” on the Korean peninsula.
“There’s a lot of work to do on it,” he said. “We’re going to continue to focus on it.”
It’s unclear what would happen with the regime if Kim is sidelined by health problems or dies.
While North Korea has not made clear who would potentially succeed Kim, some experts believe his sister, Kim Yo Jong, would step in as leader, at least during a transitional period. Others believe North Korea could be ruled by the collective leadership of ruling party elites, similar to the post-Stalin Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government has extensive contingency plans in place for an eventual death of Kim that factor in expectations of a mass-scale humanitarian crisis inside the country.
An official has described the likelihood of a huge humanitarian crisis within North Korea that could include millions of people facing starvation and a mass exodus of North Korean refugees into China. Intelligence sources told Fox News that part of the plan would be to rely heavily on China to step in and help manage the situation on the ground inside North Korea, partly due to China's proximity and partly due to logistical challenges of the U.S. providing humanitarian assistance.
The Daily NK, an online news periodical based in Seoul, which is run mostly by North Korean defectors, has reported that Kim, 36, was recovering from his April 12 surgery at a resort county villa on the east coast.
But specifics on Kim's condition remain unclear, as North Korea has been notorious for withholding and distorting news inside its borders.
Speculation often surfaces about North Korea’s leadership based on attendance at important state events. An intelligence source told Fox News Monday that there have been suspicions that Kim was unwell since April 15 after he did not attend North Korea’s most important holiday, the birthday of his grandfather Kim II Sung.
North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency has claimed Kim presided over a meeting on April 11 discussing coronavirus prevention and electing his sister as an alternate member of the political bureau of the ruling Workers’ Party.
Fox News' Nick Kalman, Gillian Turner and David Aaro contributed to this report.