SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — For the first time in three years, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wasn’t on a list of dignitaries at a celebration of the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party. The apparent no-show will add to mounting speculation that something is amiss with the authoritarian leader, who hasn’t been seen publicly in more than a month.
An official state media dispatch listed senior government, military and party officials who paid their respects at an event marking the party’s 69th anniversary, but not Kim. It said a flower basket with Kim’s name on it was placed before statues of his father and grandfather, both of whom also ruled North Korea. State media earlier said that the might of the party “is growing stronger under the seasoned guidance of Marshal Kim Jong Un.”
Kim, who is thought to be 31, hasn’t been seen performing his customary public duties in state media since he attended a concert Sept. 3. He had been walking with a limp and was more overweight than usual in images that aired before that. An official documentary from late last month described him as dealing with “discomfort,” which led to international speculation that he may be ill.
North Korea strictly controls information about its government and elite, so much of what happens in Pyongyang’s inner circles is hidden from the eyes of outsiders and even many average North Koreans. This leaves media in South Korea and elsewhere to speculate, sometimes wildly, about what’s really going on. Some reports indicate that Kim could have gout, diabetes — even, from a British news story, a cheese addiction– much of it based on that single line in the documentary and unidentified sources speaking to South Korean media.
South Korean officials are playing down the speculation.
In Seoul, Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong Cheol told reporters Friday that Kim appears to still be in charge of key affairs. Lim noted that a high-level North Korean delegation conveyed a greetings message to South Korean President Park Geun-hye during their surprise visit to South Korea last week. Lim said Pyongyang’s state media has continuously reported about Kim’s leadership.
North Korea has said nothing publicly about Kim’s absence. But it is not the first time he has taken a break from the media spotlight — Kim Jong Un wasn’t seen publicly for about three weeks in 2012, South Korean officials say — and a senior North Korean official on last week’s visit to the South told a South Korean official that Kim was fine.
Without the extended absence, Kim not showing up Friday would not be all that important or unusual. Such anniversaries are generally given more weight when they are landmark years. A high-profile celebration, for example, is expected for next year’s 70th anniversary of the ruling party.
Because Pyongyang is publicly acknowledging Kim’s “discomfort,” many analysts believe that he’s unlikely to be suffering from anything particularly serious. When his father, Kim Jong Il, suffered major health problems late in his rule, state media said nothing. Kim Jong Il is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008.
But each day that passes only adds to the speculation. Kim missed a meeting of the country’s parliament late last month, and was absent again from a gathering this week to mark his late father’s election as ruling party head. Kim has also not been seen in North Korean media reports greeting the athletes who returned from the Asian Games in the South, although they were given a lavish reception and heavy media coverage when they returned to the capital.
AP writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and Eric Talmadge in Tokyo contributed to this report.