Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono believes North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could be in poor health, and has refrained from making public appearances to avoid being infected by the coronavirus. Kono suspects Pyongyang’s recent aggressions could be to divert the attention of the “North Korean people away from Kim Jong Un’s health, or the bad harvest, or the bad economy.”

“We suspect, No. 1, that COVID-19 is spreading around North Korea as well, and Kim Jong Un is trying to … not [be] infected by COVID-19,” Kono said Thursday during an English-language briefing at the Japanese Foreign Correspondents Club. “So sometimes he doesn’t come [out] in public.”

“No. 2, we have some suspicion about his health,” Kono continued. “Thirdly, the harvest last year in North Korea wasn’t quite good – bad, actually … The economy in North Korea is not doing well.”

Kono is a high-ranking official and has served as defense minister since September and presides over one of Japan's biggest intelligence agencies, the Defense Intelligence Headquarters. A member of Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, Kono previously served as Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2017 to 2019 and holds a bachelor’s in Foreign Service from Georgetown University.

Kono’s assertions come as North Korea has become more hostile in its foreign policy. On Friday, North Korea threatened a nuclear attack against the United States. North Korea also recently destroyed an inter-Korean liaison office, as the country continues to struggle with sanctions on its economy. In recent years, the U.S. and North Korea have been holding diplomatic talks, with Washington wanting Pyongyang to denuclearize in exchange for a reduction in sanctions. So far, no concrete deal has been achieved after multiple nuclear summits between Kim and President Donald Trump. 

Rumors have swirled around Kim’s health this year, with the North Korean leader mysteriously absent from a national celebration on April 15. In early May, Kim reemerged to inaugurate a new fertilizer factory. Kim is reportedly a heavy drinker and smoker, and appears to have gained weight in recent photos. 

Kim has served as North Korea’s leader since 2011, following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, was the founder of North Korea, having ruled the country from 1948 to 1994.