People at a Seoul railway station on Tuesday watch a television news broadcast showing file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. South Korea played down a report that day that the North's leader Kim Jong Un was being treated after surgery, as speculation mounted over his absence from a key anniversary. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

US President Donald Trump on Thursday rejected reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was ailing, criticizing his frequent nemesis CNN for running the story but failing to mention the South Korean news organization that first reported Kim had undergone “urgent” cardiovascular surgery.

“I think the report was incorrect, let me just put it that way,” Trump told reporters. “I’m hearing they used old documents.”

Trump declined to say if he had direct knowledge from North Korea that Kim was fine. He instead attacked cable news network CNN, with which the US leader has an acrimonious relationship.

“I think it was a fake report done by CNN,” Trump said at a daily briefing on the coronavirus pandemic, before refusing to take further questions from a journalist of the network.

CNN, quoting what it said was an anonymous US official, on Monday reported that Washington was “monitoring intelligence” that Kim was in “grave danger” after undergoing surgery.

Daily NK, an online media outlet run partly by North Korean defectors and in contact with sources in the North, separately had quoted one such unamed source as saying that Kim underwent a cardiovascular procedure on April 12 and was recovering at a villa in North Pyongan province.

It said that Kim, who is in his mid-30s, had needed urgent treatment due to heavy smoking, obesity and fatigue.

Daily NK on Thursday doubled down, publishing a second article quoting the same unnamed source with further description of the Hyangsan Hospital and the medical team there that it said had operated on Kim on April 12.

“There were particular reasons why North Korean leader Kim Jong Un underwent heart surgery at the Hyangsan Hospital instead of a hospital in Pyongyang, a Daily NK source in the country has reported,” the new article began.

The article went on to provide exhaustive detail about the hospital, which is “designated for the exclusive use of the Kim family.”

Kim Il Sung, the founding grandfather “fell ill at the Hyangsan Villa in 1994 and there was so much rain that his helicopter couldn’t take off. He ultimately died of a ‘severe myocardial infarction along with a heart attack,” the source is quoted as having said.

The second generation ruler Kim Jong Il “ordered the creation of the hospital after his father’s death because of a belief that a hospital in the area would have saved the aged leader.”

“The hospital’s location is ideal because Hyangsan is close to Pyongyang and access to it is restricted – this is particularly important because if something happens to the leader then [such a situation] could cause unrest among the population,” the source is quoted as having said.

‘A good relationship’

Trump’s denial came two days after he issued what’s known in Washington as a non-denial denial: impugning CNN’s credibility but, on the specific question at hand, saying only that he wished Kim well.

South Korea, which is still technically at war with the North, earlier said it had seen no unusual movements in its neighbor.

A statement on Tuesday from Seoul’s presidential Blue House said Kim was “with his aides” and was “carrying out normal duties.” The Blue House did not mention Kim’s state of health, nor the source of its information.

Trump has met Kim three times in historic summitry and has voiced admiration for him, although hopes have dimmed for reaching a comprehensive agreement.

“I hope he’s not in medical trouble. I hope he’s not. I have gotten along very well with him,” Trump said Thursday.

“Remember you would have been in a war with North Korea if I didn’t get elected president,” he said, repeating a highly debateable claim he had made on Tuesday.

Trump declined to state when he was last in touch with Kim, saying: “We have a good relationship with North Korea, as good as you can have.”

Shortly before reports emerged on Kim’s health, Trump said he had received a “nice note” from the leader, but North Korea denied sending any message.

North Korea has fired off a series of rockets as it demands concessions from the Trump administration, which says that international sanctions should remain until the regime fully denuclearizes.

Kim was conspicuously absent on April 15 from celebrations for the birthday of his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the regime’s founder – the most important day on the North Korean political calendar.

– With reporting by AFP