North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has made his first public appearance since early September, the nation’s official media reported Tuesday, ending a mysterious absence of nearly six weeks.
The front page of Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, showed Kim walking with a cane at a new complex of apartment buildings in Pyongyang, the capital, where he reportedly provided “field guidance.” Kim had last been seen in public Sept. 3, attending a concert with his wife.
The front page of the newspaper bore a large photo of Kim with a broad grin. Lower on the page was a photo spread of him touring the complex. Among the officials accompanying Kim was Hwang Pyong So, a high-ranking military official who was one of three senior officials who recently traveled to South Korea to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games and hold meetings with their South Korean counterparts.
It was not possible to verify when the photos were taken.
Also Tuesday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim had appeared at a residential complex built for scientists, also in Pyongyang. It did not specify the timing of the visit, but it reported that Kim had been briefed on the complex and “said they looked very attractive, presenting fantastic scenery.”
The reports gave no explanation for Kim’s prolonged absence, which had spurred speculation about his health and whereabouts, as well as the possibility that he had been deposed in a coup. Analysts and the South Korean government had said there has been no evidence of a coup in North Korea.
More prevalent was the theory that a physical ailment was keeping Kim out of the spotlight. He was filmed in July walking with a limp at a state function. In September, North Korean official media reported that he suffered from unspecified physical “discomfort.” Last week, Reuters news agency reported that he had sustained a leg injury after joining a military exercise that he had been inspecting.
Rumors about Kim’s condition gained momentum last week when he did not appear for a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party. Over the last two years he had marked the date by paying respects at the site in Pyongyang where his father’s and grandfather’s bodies lie in state.
Since he came to power in late 2011, North Korean media have reported his activities in great detail, and such a long period out of public view was unusual for him. Kim, believed to be 31, is a smoker and has gained weight during his tenure, reportedly as a result of an affinity for rich foods.
The official media tend to closely report the activities of the country’s leadership. Kim could have been kept out of public view while recovering from his leg injury, to avoid appearing weak or vulnerable in public.
Kim did not appear in state media for a few weeks in 2012, but this was by far his longest absence during his time in power. Kim succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, after the elder Kim died in 2011. Kim Jong Il often disappeared from public view for months at a time, often because of his frail health.
Borowiec is a special correspondent.