A woman walks past a television news screen showing a picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attending a ceremony to mark the completion of Sunchon phosphatic fertiliser factory, at a railway station in Seoul, yesterday. Photo: AFP

AFP, Seoul
North Korea's Kim Jong Un has made his first public appearance in nearly three weeks, state media reported yesterday, following intense speculation that the leader of the nuclear-armed nation was seriously ill or possibly dead.

State television showed Kim walking, smiling broadly and smoking a cigarette at what the North said was the opening of a fertiliser factory on Friday in Sunchon, north of Pyongyang.

Rumours about Kim's health have been swirling since his conspicuous no-show at April 15 celebrations for the birthday of his grandfather, the North's founder -- the most important day in the country's political calendar.

His absence triggered a series of fevered rumours and unconfirmed reports over his condition, while the United States and South Korea insisted they had no information to believe any of the conjecture was true.

Seoul's unification ministry reacted to yesterday's report by saying "groundless" speculation about Kim had caused "unnecessary confusion", calling for more careful consideration in future.

Kim's sudden death would have left Pyongyang facing an unplanned succession for the first time in its history and raised unanswered questions over who would succeed him and take over the North's nuclear arsenal.

Footage showed Kim in his trademark black suit, waving to hundreds of workers who cheered his appearance and released balloons.

He was flanked by senior officials -- including his sister and close adviser Kim Yo Jong -- and showed no outward signs of ill health. At one point Kim sat in front of a sign that described the event as a factory opening ceremony for May 1, 2020, but his appearance could not be independently verified.