TOKYO — The mystery surrounding the whereabouts and status of Kim Jong Un deepened on Friday, when the North Korean leader missed a celebration for the 69th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers' Party.
It is now more than five weeks since Kim was last seen in public, and his absence, coupled with surprisingly frank official reports that he is suffering from “discomfort,” has sparked rumors of maladies ranging from obesity to overthrow.
As with most things concerning North Korea, the truth remains far from clear. But the state-run Korean Central News Agency notably left Kim’s name off a list of dignitaries who paid their respects early Friday to his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, at the mausoleum where their bodies lie.
It has become a ritual for top leaders to go to the mausoleum — a huge, marble-halled palace on the outskirts of Pyongyang officially known as the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun — just after midnight as the anniversary begins.
But KCNA reported only that a basket of flowers bearing the current leader’s name was placed before statues of the first two Kims in the world’s only communist dynasty. It was the first time since he succeeded his father almost three years ago that Kim Jong Un had missed the event.
Earlier, the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the Workers’ Party, reported that Kim Jong Un was “the symbol of the Korean Workers’ Party’s dignity and invincibility, the banner of all victory and honor.”
“We must firmly establish the monolithic leadership system of Kim Jong Un,” the paper declared. It ran a large picture of the two elder Kims on its front page, accompanying the story, but there was no photo of the current leader.
In South Korea, officials tried to put the brakes on speculation about Kim’s health and whereabouts.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which is in charge of relations with the North, said it appeared to be business as usual in Pyongyang.
“It seems that Kim Jong Un's rule is in normal operation,” spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol told reporters, according to Yonhap News Agency. “With regard to his specific health conditions, our government has no information to confirm yet,” he said.
The “Great Successor,” as he is known, was last seen in Pyongyang on Sept. 3, attending a concert with his wife. The rumor mill went into overdrive when, a few weeks later, Korean Central TV said was in an “indisposed condition.”
Previous footage showed Kim, who has noticeably put on weight since acceding to the leadership, walking with a pronounced limp. This has led to speculation he is suffering from gout or diabetes, or broke both of his ankles under the strain of his weight.
But analysts say speculation that he has been overthrown appears unfounded, given that North Korea appears to be carrying on as usual. In particular, senior officials have been traveling widely, which they would be unlikely to do there were serious turmoil at home.
“I think he’s recovering from something, but other than that, everything is speculation,” said Daniel Pinkston, a Korea analyst at the International Crisis Group. “What we can conclude is very limited, but it seems like everything is pretty much as usual up there.”