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World & Nation

North Korea’s Kim had ankle surgery, South Korean officials say

North Korea Kim
This undated picture released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency on Oct. 26 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, visiting a home for infants and orphans in Pyongyang.
(Korean Central News Agency / AFP/Getty Images)

South Korea’s main spy agency believes that a mysterious long absence by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un can be explained by surgery he had in September to remove a cyst from his right ankle, South Korean lawmakers said Tuesday.  

The information was released by lawmakers Lee Cheol-woo of the ruling Saenuri Party and Shin Kyung-min of the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy during a regular briefing about the National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s main intelligence agency.

The lawmakers said a doctor from Europe performed the surgery in North Korea but did not specify a date or say which country the physician was from.

Kim was out of the public eye and state media for 40 days starting in early September. He resurfaced Oct. 14, appearing in photographs in North Korea state media walking with a cane.

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Over the summer, Kim had been filmed walking with a limp, and North Korean state media, which usually provides detailed coverage of his activities, announced in late September that he was dealing with an unspecified physical “discomfort.” 

Since Kim reemerged, no video footage of him has been released, only photographs. 

While Kim was away, there were rumors that he had been ousted in a coup, though there was no evidence of any political upheaval in North Korea. Throughout his more than two years in power, he has been a highly visible leader, regularly appearing in public, often accompanied by his wife, Ri Sol Ju. Kim’s prolonged absence was therefore unexpected, and still hasn’t been officially explained by North Korea. 

Kim, believed to be 31, took power shortly after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in late 2011. He is the grandson of North Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung. Though he is young and relatively inexperienced, he has the legitimacy of the Kim bloodline, which is of paramount importance in North Korea’s system of hereditary leadership succession. 

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Though the Ministry of Unification is South Korea’s main body for relations with Pyongyang, the National Intelligence Service is its main source of intelligence for goings-on in North Korea. In December, the agency announced that Kim Jong Un’s uncle and second-in-command, Jang Song Thaek, had been purged. North Korea eventually confirmed Jang’s ouster. 

Borowiec is a special correspondent.


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