In this July 27, 2013, photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves to war veterans during a military parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Wong Maye-E/AP)

Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader who has mysteriously been missing from the public eye for almost a month, sparking rumors covering every possibility from a stroke to a coup d’etat, is merely recovering from ankle surgery, a South Korean newspaper has reported.

Kim had fractured both of his ankles and had surgery in Pyongyang in the middle of September to treat them, the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper, reported on Tuesday, citing an unnamed source.

“I heard that Kim Jong Un injured his right ankle in June after pushing ahead with on-site visits and ended up fracturing both ankles because he left the injury unattended,” the source was quoted as saying, adding that he had the operation at the Bonghwa Clinic, an exclusive hospital for high-ranking party members.

Such is the fascination with North Korea, the world’s most impenetrable country, that rumors spread like wildfire. But they are almost always impossible to verify.

Nevertheless, it is true that Kim has become noticeably more rotund since he took over the leadership of North Korea from his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011. He was pictured limping in July during a ceremony to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of his grandfather, former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, causing speculation about his health. But the gossip mill started up again last week when Kim, the third-generation leader of North Korea, missed a regular session of the Supreme People’s Assembly in Pyongyang. He has not been seen in public since Sept. 3, when he attended a concert with his wife. It went into overdrive when the state-run Korean Central TV said the “Great Successor,” as he is known, was in an “indisposed condition.”

North Korean state TV said leader Kim Jong Un is suffering from "discomfort," the first official acknowledgment that he is unwell after a period out of the public eye. (Reuters)

“Despite some discomfort, our Marshal continues to come out and lead the people,” said the narrator of a documentary called “Improving the Lives of the People,” showing footage of Kim limping through the Taedonggang Tile Factory last month. It aired just before the session of the assembly, North Korea’s quasi-parliament, was broadcast, the Daily NK Web site reported.

With Kim shown carting around heavy things, the narrator continued: “His whole body is drenched in sweat, but he does not stop working hard, instead showing concern for the health of the other workers.”

Separately, the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the Workers’ Party, recently reported that Kim had “labored on,” visiting various facilities braving the hot summer weather.

Outside commentators have guessed that Kim has gout, which runs in the family, or has been drinking and eating too much. Diabetes and high blood pressure have also been put forward as possible causes of his absence.

Weibo, China's version of Twitter, went crazy this week with reports that Jo Myong Rok, a North Korean vice marshal who died four years ago, had overthrown Kim in a coup and sent his lieutenants to South Korea for negotiations. Talk spread so quickly that the Global Times, one of China’s official papers, ran a commentary Monday titled “For those who make up rumors of coup in North Korea, is it so funny?”

“Netizens who have a radical opinion can’t represent the opinion of China and China’s attitude toward North Korea was not changed,” the paper said.

In Washington, U.S. officials said they had no information about North Korea’s leader. “I can just say that I have no confirmation of the reports,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. “We’ve seen them, but we don’t have any confirmation.”

In Beijing, a U.S. diplomat said Monday that North Korea has rejected U.S. efforts to discuss the detention of three Americans, Reuters reported. Glyn Davies, U.S. special representative for North Korean policy, who is visiting the region, said Pyongyang’s refusal to discuss the issue was a sign that it “doesn’t have an interest in coming back into the international system as a responsible country.”