In most countries, footage showing the leader with a limp might have generated some curiosity. But in tightly controlled North Korea, those images — coupled with the disappearance of the country’s ruler, Kim Jong-un, from public view for five weeks — have generated endless debate among foreign officials and analysts always on the lookout for upheaval in one of the world’s most dangerous police states.
The disappearance is especially notable because Mr. Kim, like his father and grandfather before him, has used public appearances accompanied by fawning subjects as a key tool of the propaganda machine that has long held the state together.
For now, American and South Korean officials say that while they think the young leader might be ailing, there is no sign that there has been a coup. After three generations of Kims, any shift away from dynastic rule would probably involve unusual movements of the country’s million-plus military or its people, and none have been detected by the South.
And the fact that North Korea sent three officials widely seen as the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 in the country’s hierarchy to attend the recent closing ceremony of the Asian Games in South Korea, and that during their visit they agreed to resume official dialogue with Seoul, suggests that Mr. Kim remains in control, according to officials and analysts in South Korea.
In Washington, officials have waved off coup rumors as the wishful thinking of people who have spent years looking for signs of regime collapse and been serially disappointed.
“The last time was when everyone was predicting that Kim Jong-un would be pushed aside by his more experienced uncle,” said one senior official. “And look what happened to him.”