Is North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ill, deposed or taking a break?

Amid rumors about Kim Jong Un's fate, a North Korean delegation denies the leader is ill

If North Korean leader Kim Jong Un isn't sick, he must be dead -- at least politically.

That's the thinking behind a rash of rumors that the portly 31-year-old scion of the Hermit Kingdom's founding communists has been toppled from power.

Kim hasn't been seen in public in more than a month, and his absence from the Sept. 25 gathering of the rubber-stamp parliament injected adrenaline into Korea watchers' speculation that he has been deposed by a palace coup.

Then a high-level delegation of Pyongyang officials made a surprise visit to the South Korean city of Incheon on Saturday, ostensibly to catch the closing ceremonies of the Asian Games in which North Korean athletes did their rogue country proud. The top-ranking visitor, purported No. 2 Hwang Pyong So, conveyed Kim's "heartfelt greeting" to the South Korean officials with whom he met. That only served to ramp up media and academic speculation over why Pyongyang was making such a conciliatory gesture at this time.

South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae took advantage of the rare opportunity for firsthand information from the North in asking after the health of Kim after a North Korean television report last week that alluded to the leader being in "discomfort."

"There is nothing wrong with the health of Secretary Kim," Ryoo's counterpart from Pyongyang, Workers' Party secretary for Korean affairs Kim Yang Gon, told his host. Ryoo then told Sunday talk shows that ill health appeared not to be the reason for the leader's prolonged absence from the public eye.

So what is the reason?

South Korean media, often as much in the dark about their northern brethren as more far-flung analysts, have reported that Kim suffers from gout, which might explain why he appeared to be limping the last time he was spotted in public on Sept. 3.

New Focus International, a 2-year-old self-funded news site that claims to offer authentic North Korean content and analysis, has woven developments since last year's execution of Kim's uncle and then second in command, Jang Song Taek, into a narrative that has the young leader sidelined in a figurehead role. Hwang, who has accumulated new military and political powers in recent months, has usurped Kim's authority and is calling the shots from within a once-obscure department of the ruling Workers' Party, the theory goes.

"The big rumor now is that the Organization and Guidance Department has taken over," said Jeffrey Lewis, a defense and security scholar at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. 

The department that was built up during the 1994-2011 reign of Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, as a kind of internal security apparatus, has taken on a life of its own, the New Focus website reported in claiming Kim has become a mere "figurehead" as leader.

Lewis calls the speculation on an internal coup d'etat "an awfully strong extrapolation of very small things," including reports of a travel ban on Pyongyang residents and the presence of bodyguards with Hwang during his Incheon visit. (Only the supreme leader is entitled to protection, New Focus International reported, casting Hwang's behavior with the South Koreans as a "fundamental violation of North Korea’s power principle.")

"I think they are plausible rumors, at least worth paying attention to, and it's interesting that he’s been out of view that long," Lewis said of the speculation on Kim's physical and political condition. "There are some things out of place. Something weird is going on. But they do weird things all the time that shock us."

As with most reports circumnavigating their way out of impenetrable North Korea, "sometimes the right answer in life is 'I don't know,'" Lewis said of Kim's situation.

William Keylor, a professor of international relations and history at Boston University, likewise cautions that North Korea is "the most opaque society and government in the world, so everything is based on speculation."

He acknowledged, though, that there has been "evidence of rivalry and conflict within the ruling elite," and Kim's absence has fueled the rumor mill.

Hwang's unexpected visit to South Korea after months of diplomatic deep freeze between the Koreas might have been an overture at Kim's behest to put his neighbors' fears to rest over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons pursuit, Keylor said. He noted the cyclical nature of relations on the peninsula that vacillate between hostility and gestures of conciliation.

"This is the longest that Kim Jong Un has been off the public radar since he came to power" in December 2011, noted Curtis Melvin, a researcher at the U.S.-Korea Institute of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. "But we don’t know that he is sick. We don’t exactly know why he is off the scene. I try not to read too much into it."

The only credible evidence of the leader's possible ill health is that he has spent much of his time in recent months away from the capital at family compounds in Wonsan and Kangdong. The latter refuge was where his father spent his final months before his death on Dec. 17, 2011, bequeathing the reins of the country born of the 1950-53 civil war to his then- 29-year-old son.

Melvin said he believes Kim is still in charge, but was uncertain whether the Swiss-educated leader with a penchant for Western sports and European delicacies is in retreat because he is "recovering from something or simply not tending to his public duties."

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