Wait a minute. Kim Jong Un is sick! It’s true, he has been “getting fatter” lately. He does love cheese: “Kim Jong Un broke his ankle after he had put on extra weight from regularly consuming imported cheese,” reported India Today. Or is it gout? He has gout! “The increasingly obese Kim is merely suffering from a physical ailment, most likely gout, according to reports by South Korean media,” said Bloomberg Businessweek.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, who normally revels in the oddities of his profession, has not been seen by the world for 37 days, and the Internet is about to explode. But it’s nothing compared to what will happen Friday if he’s a no-show at the celebration of North Korea’s 69th anniversary.
He was last seen attending a concert in Pyongyang on Sept. 3, nestled in a cushy chair, smoking a cigarette, beside his demure wife, Ri Sol Ju. At the event, he was reported to have “labored on,” while “braving” the hot summer weather, giving way to a torrent of chatter that some mystery ailment had befallen Dear Leader.
It continued on Wednesday in Chosun Ilbo, the source of many bankrupt Kim Jong Un reports, which reported that Kim was “recovering in the provinces” from this unknown sickness. The New York Times, meanwhile, chimed in with a statement from the South Korean defense minister who had determined Kim was “at a certain place north of Pyongyang.”
The mystery deepens. According to Chosun Ilbo, the official “said some media reports about Kim are true and some are false, but ‘I believe that we get highly credible information from the intelligence unit of the defense ministry.'” This comes days after another breathless Ilbo report, which quoted one official stating that, after talking with a North Korean official, “something in his tone told me that Kim Jong Un had no serious problems with his health.”
Misinformation and innuendo is part of the game when it comes to covering and consuming North Korea news. Kim has been reported to have made five hole-in-ones on his first outing playing golf. North Korean scientists are said to have discovered evidence that unicorns exist. Part of the madness has to do with the modern media environment. Insane stories bring in insane pageviews, and no country churns out more insane news stories than North Korea.
But even by those standards, the current rumor machine is humming at a heated clip, which again reflects just how little information breaks free from the Hermit Kingdom. Really, the only consistent North Korea news we have to go on are Kim Jong Un’s public appearances, which often feature him touring some structure amid a gaggle of notepad-clutching officials furiously scribbling down whatever wisdom nugget Kim drops. What is Kim possibly saying that’s so trenchant? Maybe everything. Maybe nothing. Who knows. It’s North Korea.
On Sept. 3, however, those photo-ops suddenly stopped. This is unusual. According to North Korea News, the arbiter of all things North Korea, since Kim glided into power in 2012, his longest absence was 24 days — 13 days fewer than this current stint. Since the beginning of 2013, he hasn’t made fewer than 11 public appearances in a month. Last June, he made a record 33 public appearances.
In the next day or so, public speculation will surely mount, as anticipation grows for Friday’s ceremonies. “At some point if Kim fails to appear in public, then we can assume there is a serious problem,” John Delury, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Yonsei University, told the New York Times.