SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s spy agency believes it has solved the mystery of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s 6-week public absence that set off a frenzy of global speculation, a lawmaker who attended the agency’s closed-door briefing said Wednesday.
The National Intelligence Service told legislators Tuesday that a foreign doctor operated on Kim in September or October to remove a cyst from his left ankle, lawmaker Shin Kyung-min said. He said the spy agency also told lawmakers that the cyst could recur because of Kim’s obesity, smoking and heavy public schedule.
After last being seen in state media on Sept. 3, Kim reappeared on Oct. 14 hobbling with a cane, but smiling and looking thinner. The speculation during his absence was particularly intense because of the Kim family’s importance to the country locked in a long-running international standoff over its nuclear and missile programs. The family has ruled the nation since its founding in 1948.
Shin said the spy agency identified Kim’s condition as tarsal tunnel syndrome, an often painful condition that is caused by the compression of a nerve, sometimes because of a cyst. Surgery is generally seen as a last resort after other treatments are unsuccessful.
No weight should be put on the foot for 10 days after an operation, and an improvement in symptoms may take two to three months, according to the website of the NYU Langone Medical Center’s Department of Neurosurgery.
It wasn’t immediately clear how the information about Kim’s condition was obtained by the spy agency, which has a spotty track record of analyzing developments in opaque North Korea.
The agency also told the lawmakers that North Korea has expanded one of its five political prisoner camps in the country. The agency said it believes authorities are relocating inmates held in the Yodok camp, northeast of Pyongyang, to the expanded camp in the northeastern town of Kilju, according to Shin’s office.
Shin said the agency also believes that North Korea recently used a firing squad to execute several people who had been close to Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was considered the country’s No. 2 power before his sudden purge and execution in December 2013.
In an intelligence success, South Korea’s spy agency correctly said that Jang had likely been dismissed from his posts before North Korea officially announced his arrest.
However, it received heavy criticism when its director acknowledged that it had ignored intelligence indicating North Korea’s impending shelling of a South Korean island in 2010. It also came under fire because of reports that it only learned of the 2011 death of then leader Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un, more than two days after it occurred when state media announced it to the world.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report.