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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presides over a meeting of the central military commission of the ruling Workers' Party in this undated photo published by the Korean Central News Agency on Sunday, May 24, 2020.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presides over a meeting of the central military commission of the ruling Workers' Party in this undated photo published by the Korean Central News Agency on Sunday, May 24, 2020. (KCNA)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presides over a meeting of the central military commission of the ruling Workers' Party in this undated photo published by the Korean Central News Agency on Sunday, May 24, 2020.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presides over a meeting of the central military commission of the ruling Workers' Party in this undated photo published by the Korean Central News Agency on Sunday, May 24, 2020. (KCNA)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presides over a meeting of the central military commission of the ruling Workers' Party in this undated photo published by the Korean Central News Agency on Sunday, May 24, 2020.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presides over a meeting of the central military commission of the ruling Workers' Party in this undated photo published by the Korean Central News Agency on Sunday, May 24, 2020. (KCNA)

SEOUL, South Korea — In his first reported appearance in more than three weeks, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presided over a meeting calling for increased nuclear capabilities and putting the armed forces on “high alert,” state-run media said Sunday.

The 36-year-old leader’s whereabouts have been closely watched after speculation that he may have suffered health problems began last month during a similar absence from public view.

Kim resurfaced May 1 at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a fertilizer factory but was not seen again until the Korean Central News Agency published photos on Sunday showing him overseeing a meeting of the nation’s top military-governing body.

“Set forth at the meeting were new policies for further increasing the nuclear war deterrence of the country and putting the strategic armed forces on a high alert operation in line with the general requirements for the building and development of the armed forces of the country,” KCNA said.

“Taken at the meeting were crucial measures for considerably increasing the firepower strike ability of the [North Korean army’s] artillery pieces,” it added.

The emphasis on developing nuclear capabilities and military firepower was the latest blow to hopes for a revival of U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to persuade the North to give up its nuclear weapons program.

It also came a day after the Washington Post, citing three anonymous officials, reported that President Donald Trump’s administration has discussed whether to conduct the first U.S. nuclear test since 1992.

The issue was raised at a May 15 meeting of national security officials following administration accusations that Russia and China are conducting low-yield nuclear tests, the Post said. No publicly available evidence supports that assertion and both countries deny it, according to the report.

KCNA didn’t mention the report or give a date or location for the meeting of the central military commission of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party.

Kim also promoted major commanding officers. Ri Pyong Chol, a senior party official in charge of weapons development, was elected as the commission’s vice-chairman, KCNA said.

Photos showed him speaking to an audience of uniformed officials as they furiously took notes, pointing to a screen with a blurred-out image and signing documents.

North Korea has demonstrated major advances in its nuclear program since Kim assumed power after his father died of a heart attack in late 2011.

Kim declared a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests in 2018 as he held summits with Trump and South Korean leader Moon Jae-in. However, he said last year that the North was no longer bound by the moratorium after talks deadlocked.

The North has conducted several recent short-range missile tests but stopped short of launching an intercontinental ballistic missile, which Trump has signaled would be a red line.

South Korean officials have insisted that rumors that Kim had undergone heart surgery were unfounded.

Earlier this month, the South’s spy agency told lawmakers that it believes Kim has reduced his public activities because of concerns about the coronavirus despite the North’s insistence that it’s not affected by the pandemic.

gamel.kim@stripes.com Twitter: @kimgamel

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