The wait continues — and the speculation mounts — after North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un failed to show up Friday for a key political anniversary in Pyongyang.
Kim has not been seen in public since Sept. 3, sparking rumors of a serious illness or even a coup in the highly secretive state whose nuclear ambitions rattle the region.
In Seoul, a South Korean official played down the significance of Kim’s absence. “It seems that Kim Jong Un’s rule is in normal operation,” Lim Byeong-cheol, spokesman for the south’s unification ministry, told a press briefing Friday, reported the Yonhap news agency. He cited the North’s dispatch of a top-level party-military delegation to the south last week, during which a senior figure conveyed Kim’s greetings to South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
Hi absence comes as North and South Korea traded fire Friday after the North shot at a South Korean propaganda balloon, according to an Associated Press report.
Although prolonged absences by North Korean leaders are not uncommon, this marks the longest such disappearance since Kim became Supreme Leader following the death of his father Kim Jong Il in 2011. The most recent television footage showed Kim, thought to be 30 or 31, limping heavily.
State media, in a rare comment on the ruling dynasty’s personal matters, later said Kim was suffering from unspecified “discomfort.” Gout seems a contender, given Kim’s reported love of rich foods and alcohol, but the Reuters news agency, quoting an unnamed source Friday, said Kim had hurt his leg, required 100 days to recover, and remained in full control.
Kim was injured when he joined generals he had ordered to perform physical drills, the source said. North Korea’s state-run television is usually dominated by propaganda footage of Kim providing “on-the-spot guidance” to people at farms, factories, schools and seemingly in every other aspect of North Korean life
Despite the absence of new material since Sept. 3, Kim remains front and center as the third generation of the ruling family’s personality cult, an all-pervasive phenomenon that effectively serves as the state religion. “Dear comrade Kim Jong Un is the symbol of dignity and invincibility of the Workers’ Party and the banner of all victories and glory,” said an editorial Friday in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper, a mouthpiece of the ruling party, Reuters reported.
If healthy, Kim would have been the central figure at events marking Party Foundation Day, Oct. 10. This year, the 69th anniversary, carries less significance and symbolism than the 70th in 2015, but Kim did attend commemorative activities on this date for the past two years, including a midnight ritual at the palace housing the embalmed bodies of his father and grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the regime founder and “Eternal President.”