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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reappears after long absence in “model” city

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reappears after long absence in "model" city

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un makes his first public appearance in over a month on Tuesday, touring the site of a mountain resort city Samjiyon, state-run media reported. Photo by KCNA via EPA-EFE

SEOUL, Nov. 16 (UPI) — Kim Jong Un on Tuesday visited the site of a new resort city near the Chinese border, state media reported, ending the North Korean leader’s longest absence from the public eye in seven years.

Kim, who had not been seen in official media for over a month, traveled to the mountain city of Samjiyon to give “on-the-spot guidance” to developers, Korean Central News Agency reported.

Samjiyon is the birthplace of Kim’s father and former leader Kim Jong Il, located in the foothills of Mount Paektu — a site considered by both North and South Koreans to have an almost mystical significance.

“Kim Jong Un determined to turn [Samjiyon] into a model of a mountainous cultured city and into an ideal local city as befits the sacred place of the revolution,” the KCNA report said.

The project, which includes apartments, hotels, schools and a ski resort, is expected to be completed this year, KCNA reported. Kim had originally targeted completion for October 2020, ahead of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party, but that plan was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

North Korea closed its borders in January 2020, cutting off almost all commercial activity with its only major trading partner, China. Pyongyang continues to report that the country has had no cases of COVID-19, a claim outside observers have questioned.

In images released by state media, Kim was seen walking through the new development and speaking with officials, quieting speculations about his health that had been rising during his latest disappearance.

In June, a noticeably slimmed-down Kim reappeared in public after a four-week absence, which set off questions about his physical condition. South Korea’s spy agency told parliament last month that Kim has lost around 45 pounds from his previously 310-pound frame, but said that he doesn’t appear to have any serious health issues.

During his visit Tuesday, Kim praised the “dynamic struggle of the builders who vigorously pushed ahead with the huge project without a stop,” the KCNA report said.

North Korea frequently uses forced labor in its public works projects, according to international rights organizations, including political prisoners, soldiers and even college students, who are praised in official media as “volunteers.”

Kim also called for “measures to ensure [a] stable increase in potato production,” in the area, KCNA reported.

North Korea is facing a chronic food shortage that has been exacerbated by the prolonged border closure and recent bouts of severe weather. Some 40% of North Koreans were food insecure before the pandemic, according to the United Nations — a figure that has subsequently increased, U.N. human rights expert Tomas Ojea Quintana cautioned in a report last month.

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