South Korea said on Monday it was business as usual in North Korea, casting skepticism on media reports that Pyongyang was poised to make an announcement possibly concerning the health of its leader, Kim Jong II.
Japanese newspapers reported over the weekend that the communist nation had ordered its diplomats abroad to be on standby and planned to ban foreigners from entering the country ahead of an "important announcement."
Tokyo's Sankei newspaper reported that the North planned to make the announcement on Monday and that it could be about Kim's death or a government change induced by a coup.
"There were some media reports about (the North) banning foreigners," said Kim Ho-nyeon, spokesman for Seoul's Unification Ministry in charge of monitoring North Korea. "But there are no unusual signs regarding civilian exchanges between the South and the North. They are going on as scheduled."
The spokesman added, "All of North Korea's internal broadcasting as well as international and domestic events are proceeding normally."
The autocratic North Korean leader has been the focus of intense speculation since he disappeared from public view in mid-August. US and South Korean officials suspect he suffered a stroke and had brain surgery. North Korea has flatly denied there is anything wrong with its 66-year-old leader.
Seoul's main spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, said Sunday it could not confirm the Japanese reports. In a dispatch Sunday from the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, South Korea's Yonhap news agency also quoted an unnamed source in Beijing as saying some North Korean Embassy officials who left on business trips have not returned.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Noel Clay said he could not comment on what the reported announcement might be. About one week ago, North Korea released photos showing Kim inspecting a military unit and appearing healthy. However, it did not say when the pictures were taken, sparking speculation that the photos might have been taken earlier because the lush green foliage appeared not to match the Korean peninsula's current autumn season. On Sunday, the North's official Korean Central News Agency published typical propaganda dispatches praising Kim's regime and criticizing the South Korean government. There were no articles indicating any imminent government announcement.