TOKYO — Just like that, Kim Jong Un was back.
For weeks on end, the portly North Korean leader’s sudden disappearance from public view was the source of wild theories ranging from broken ankles because of excessive cheese consumption to being ousted in a military coup.
Even by the standards of North Korea’s bizarre personality cult, the global attention to Kim’s whereabouts was notable.
Then, with no explanation, the third-generation leader of the world’s only communist dynasty reappeared, smiling while giving his trademark “field guidance” at an apartment complex and an energy institute. All that was different was a cane, evidence for one of the least exciting theories: that he simply had something wrong with his leg.
And with that, it was back to business as usual.
His return will be a blow to comedy show hosts, tabloid headline writers and armchair Kiminologists. But the whole incident does reveal something about the North Korean regime: The current leader is relatively more open than his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, “Eternal President” Kim Il Sung.
Neither ever publicly acknowledged so much as having a wife, let alone any other human frailties. The first Kim was always carefully photographed to avoid showing the huge goiter on his neck, while the second suffered a series of maladies — including an apparent stroke in 2008 — that were never mentioned in the North Korean press.
But in Tuesday’s reports, there was the youngest Kim, thought to be 31 or 32, propped up on a cane at the apartment complex, holding the cane as he rode around on an electric cart, leaning on it as he sat on a couch.
“By appearing in public, Kim wanted to show the world he still rules the state,” said Koh Yoo-hwan, a professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
In Tuesday’s official accounts of Kim’s reappearance, neither the Korean Central News Agency nor Rodong Sinmun, the paper of the ruling Workers’ Party, made any reference to the leader’s absence or his health problems, instead opting to simply show numerous photos of him smiling broadly and giving instructions that were apparently being taken down by apparatchiks with notepads.
“Watching the exterior of the apartment houses and public buildings nicely decorated with diverse color tiles, he was very pleased to see them,” KCNA said of Kim’s visit to the residential complex built for scientists. “He said they looked very attractive, presenting fantastic scenery.”
The reports follow the surprising admission in the state media a few weeks ago that Kim, who hadn’t been seen since Sept. 3, was suffering from “discomfort.”
Of course, none of this is to suggest that North Korea has suddenly become an open, liberal democracy. It remains the world’s most tightly controlled totalitarian state, consistently scoring at the bottom of press freedom tables.
But it is part of a pattern of ever-so-slightly greater transparency that began when Kim succeeded his father at the end of 2011.
When a satellite intended to celebrate the centenary of the founding president Kim’s birth fizzled in 2012, Pyongyang immediately conceded that the launch had been a failure — something that would have been unthinkable in the second Kim’s “military first” era.
Last year, state media reported in vivid detail that Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Taek, had been purged and later executed. And earlier this year, the official mouthpieces said that an apartment building — part of a great construction boom under Kim — had collapsed.
More recently, North Korea has admitted to running “reform through labor” camps — although its description was a far cry from the brutal gulags described by defectors. It is even engaging with the United Nations on human rights, albeit in the most limited way.
“There is a pattern here of being more forthcoming, a little less cryptic,” said John Delury, a North Korea watcher at Yonsei University in Seoul.
This could be an acknowledgment that, in an age when about 2.5 million North Koreans have cellphones, the regime cannot maintain the same control over information that it once did.
The latest reports showing Kim with a cane could be useful for both domestic and international purposes, analysts say.
“For common people, it gives him a human touch, people might have sympathy for him,” said Daniel Pinkston, Korea analyst at the International Crisis Group. North Korean propagandists would be able to use Kim’s return as proof that even the leader faced challenges — and that he triumphed over them.
The photos also highlighted the difference between Kim and his father, Pinkston said.
“His father was always restrained, keeping his distance, but Kim Jong Un is shown shaking hands, with his arms around people, slapping their backs. He’s more like a [Bill] Clinton or Tony Blair.”
On the international front, North Korea appears to be increasingly sensitive to world opinion.
After the U.N.’s commission of inquiry on North Korean human rights released a damning report detailing political prison camps and state-sponsored abductions earlier this year, there have been calls to refer the country to the International Criminal Court.
North Korea subsequently released its own report in response, saying that it had “the world’s most advantageous human rights system.” Although the report was widely criticized as deceitful, the bar for North Korean transparency is so low that the fact that it is even engaging on the issue was considered progress.
The return of a broadly smiling Kim also sends another message to the world — and one that is of critical importance to Pyongyang.
“This is a testament of how strong the leadership is — it is stronger than most observers thought it was,” said Peter Beck, a seasoned Korea expert at the New Paradigm Institute in Seoul. “The fact that nothing happened during his absence means we need to rethink the thesis that North Korea is unstable.”
Yoonjung Seo in Seoul contributed to this report.