(ATTN: ADDS unification ministry official's comment in paras 8-9)
By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, April 16 (Yonhap) -- North Korean state media reported Thursday that senior officials paid their respect at the mausoleum of late national founder Kim Il-sung to mark his 108th birthday but did not mention whether leader Kim Jong-un also paid a visit there.
That raises the possibility that Kim skipped an annual visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun that he has made on the birthday of the national founder and his grandfather since he rose to power after the death of his father and former leader Kim Jong-il in late 2011.
Some observers said Kim could have skipped a visit due to coronavirus concerns.
The official Korean Central News Agency reported earlier in the day that a group of senior government, party and military officials paid tribute at the Kumsusan Place of the Sun to mark the birthday of the grandfather of current leader Kim on Wednesday.
The KCNA and other state media, including the Rodong Sinmun, however, have made no mention of a visit by leader Kim to the mausoleum where the bodies of his grandfather and father Kim Jong-il are enshrined. A state radio broadcaster only reported that Kim has sent gifts to orphans, kids and students on the occasion of the late founder's birthday.
Since taking office in late 2011, Kim has never skipped visiting the mausoleum in time for the birthday that is often celebrated with a large-scale military parade and other cultural and sport events. His visits to the site have been reported mostly on the same day or the following morning.
Speculation grows that Kim might have skipped visiting the mausoleum this year as the country is in an all-out fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
An official of Seoul's unification ministry handling inter-Korean affairs doubted that possible connection, saying that Kim paid tribute there in mid-February for the birthday of his late father despite the country's intensifying anti-virus campaign.
"It would be very unusual if Kim proves not to visit there," the official told reporters on condition of anonymity. "There could be various analyses, including the easiest connection with COVID-19 ... but we need more time for our own."
The North claims to have no confirmed infection, but it has taken drastic and relatively swift countermeasures, such as closing its border with China and toughened the quarantine process.
Outside observers have called into question its claim to be free of the virus given its weak medical infrastructure and proximity to China and South Korea where a large number of people have been infected with the disease.
The North appears to have celebrated the late founder's birthday Wednesday in a relatively quite atmosphere without holding large-scale events in an apparent precautionary anti-virus move. Pyongyang earlier canceled a major marathon event that has been held to mark the national holiday.
Some experts still say it remains to be seen whether Kim has not actually visited the mausoleum for fear of the pandemic since he has showed great confidence in containing the outbreak of the infectious disease and attended a series of recent weapons tests without wearing a mask.
Kim was last mentioned in state media presiding over a political bureau meeting of the ruling Workers' Party on Saturday, calling for "strict national countermeasures to thoroughly check the infiltration of the virus."
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