North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s non-appearance for more than a month has fueled a wave of speculation, with international media citing everything from a coup to gout as possible explanations for his absence.
With rumors still swirling, foreign officials and observers are waiting to see if Mr. Kim shows up at the 69th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party on Friday.
Kim has celebrated the anniversary for the last two years by visiting the Pyongyang mausoleum where his father and grandfather’s bodies are interred, Reuters reports. Kim replaced his father Kim Jong-il in December 2011.
The current leader, who is normally a ubiquitous presence in North Korea’s state media, has not been seen in public since Sept. 3. Before that he had been seen walking with a limp, the Associated Press reported.
While unusual for Kim to be out of sight for so long, he’s not the first North Korean leader to do so. His father and grandfather also disappeared for weeks on end.
“Kim Jong-un’s disappearing act over the past month, in the North Korean context, is not an aberration,” Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea expert at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., told the New York Times. “Such vanishing acts would be most unusual in democracies, but in totalitarian North Korea, Kim is the state. He is free to come and go as he pleases.”
North Korea isn't the only secretive dictatorship that sets off the global rumor mill when its leaders suddenly go missing. China has a long history of top officials disappearing for various lengths of time with little or no explanation, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2012.
In the case of North Korea, the febrile speculation – Britain's Daily Mail is running a live counter – is abetted by the fact that the outside world knows almost nothing about North Korean politics. Hence headlines like “Kim Jong-un: has the North Korean dynasty fallen?” and “Is Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong in charge?”
North Korean officials have done little to quell such speculation. They have denied that he had health problems. Naturally this led North Korea watchers to conclude that the young, inexperienced leader had been overthrown by political rivals in Pyongyang.
A North Korean TV report last month said Kim was suffering from “discomfort,” leading some to speculate that he had gout. An unnamed source with access to North Korea's leadership told Reuters that the ruler was recovering from a leg injury he suffered about a month ago.
United States and South Korean officials have rejected such a scenario. They contend that the likely explanation is indeed health-related, the New York Times reports.
Paul French, an opinion writer for Reuters, points out that “we’ve been here before” when it comes to rumors of a coup in North Korea:
Rumors of attempted military coups among the shadowy Pyongyang elite have emerged regularly over the years. The 1950s and 1960s saw show trials of senior military personnel, when Kim Il-sung purged political rivals after sequestering himself and leaving analysts wondering where he’d got to. In the late 1960s Chinese Red Guards claimed that Kim Il-sung had been arrested by army generals after he wasn’t seen for a bit. A further purge of the military hierarchy reportedly followed, so maybe the Red Guards knew more than most.
Coup whispers swirled again around 1970, when only silence emanated from Pyongyang, but Kim eventually re-emerged.
And the list goes on.
The rumor-fueled intrigue surrounding Kim’s disappearance means all eyes will be on North Korea Friday. But whether or not the leader makes an appearance remains anyone’s guess. And even if he does, the North Korea watchers will probably discover more clues to be deciphered in the global guessing game.