The mysterious disappearance of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un from public view for the last 35 days fueled wide speculation that he was ill or the victim of a possible coup, but a senior U.S. intelligence official calls the rumors false, and a Reuters source insists he’s “in total control.”
After weeks of unexplained absences, chatter on Kim’s whereabouts reached a fever pitch after he was conspicuously not on a list of dignitaries at an anniversary celebration of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party Friday.
An official state media dispatch listed senior government, military and party officials who paid their respects at the 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.
In the past two years, Kim marked the anniversary with a visit to the Pyongyang mausoleum where his father and grandfather’s bodies are interred.
Kim also missed a meeting of the country’s parliament late last month, leaving many to wonder whether the leader was ill or no longer in power.
State media earlier said that the might of the party “is growing stronger under the seasoned guidance of Marshal Kim Jong Un.”
Kim, 31, who was last seen in public attending a concert on Sept. 3rd, had been seen earlier walking with a limp.
But Reuters reported Friday that Kim was still in firm control of his government, according to a source with access to the secretive North’s leadership. That source suggested Kim has been sidelined with a leg injury after taking part in a military drill.
“He ordered all the generals to take part in drills and he took part too. They were crawling and running and rolling around, and he pulled a tendon,” the source told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
“He injured his ankle and knee around late August or early September while drilling because he is overweight. He limped around in the beginning but the injury worsened,” the anonymous source added.
Kim came into power after his father died of a heart attack in 2011, and has rapidly gained weight since then.
“Kim Jong Un is in total control,” the source told Reuters, and needs about 100 days to recuperate. The source’s information has not been independently verified.
National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters Friday that the U.S monitors events in North Korea very closely.
“We have seen those same reports about Kim Jong Un’s health. I don’t have anything for you on that. Given that the DPRK regime is the most opaque on earth, it’s not surprising that there is very little reliable and publicly available information about this. Regarding rumors of a coup, as we have said previously, those appear to be false,” Ventrell said.
During a surprise visit to South Korea last week to attend the closing ceremonies of the Asian Games in Incheon, three senior North Korean leaders assured their South Korean counterparts that Kim was healthy, but that has done little to calm the rumors abroad that he was unwell.
U.S. and South Korean officials told The New York Times that there is no immediate evidence that there has been a coup.
“The last time was when everyone was predicting that Kim Jong-un would be pushed aside by his more experienced uncle, and look what happened to him,” a senior official told the paper.
After surviving several earlier purges, Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was publicly shamed and then executed on treason charges in December 2013.
Geoffery Cain wrote in The Global Post that some analysts believe the leader’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong has been running the country in his absence.
“She is one of the only people in that we know has unfettered direct access to KJU. At the present time I would not be surprised if she is sole gatekeeper,” Michael Madden, who runs the North Korea Leadership Watch blog, told Cain.
The article points out that little is known about the sister, believed to be born in the late 80s, but in March she appeared on state television as a senior official.
Kim is usually a near-constant one-man show in state media, but he has kept a low profile before. In 2012, he wasn’t seen publicly for about three weeks, South Korean officials say.
“Such vanishing acts would be most unusual in democracies, but in totalitarian North Korea, Kim is the state. He is free to come and go as he pleases,” Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea expert at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, told The Times.
On Friday, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it believes Kim remains in charge, referring to a message conveyed by him via a delegation visiting last weekend, and Pyongyang’s continued public position that Kim leads the country.
“So it appears it is being normally ruled by Kim Jong Un,” ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.