North Korea’s mysterious leader Kim Jong-un has not been seen in public for 35 days and was not on a list of dignitaries at a celebration of the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party on Friday, sparking speculation that the head of one of the world’s most secretive countries is ailing or has been removed in a secret coup.
An official state media dispatch listed senior government, military and party officials who paid their respects at an event marking the party’s 69th anniversary, but not Kim. It said a flower basket with Kim’s name on it was placed before statues of his father and grandfather, both of whom also ruled North Korea.
There has been rampant speculation that the leader is ill or is no longer in power. Unidentified sources tell South Korean reporters it may be gout, diabetes, or high blood pressure. A source Friday told Sky News that Kim suffered a pulled tendon during a military drill. There has been no confirmation.
State media earlier said that the might of the party “is growing stronger under the seasoned guidance of Marshal Kim Jong Un.”
While his absence is not in itself all that important or unusual — such anniversaries are generally given more weight when they are landmark years, though he attended the celebrations in the last two years.
Kim, who was last seen in public attending a concert on Sept. 3., had been seen earlier walking with a limp.
During a surprise visit to South Korea last week to attend the closing ceremonies of the Asian Games in Incheon, three senior North Korean leaders assured their South Korean counterparts that Kim was healthy, but that has done little to calm the rumors abroad that he was unwell.
Paul French wrote in a Reuters’ opinion, “to add to the current coup rumors, Hwang Pyong So, recently appointed director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army (the top political position in the powerful DPRK military), appeared in Incheon in South Korea sparking more speculation that Kim was gone and a coup had occurred.”
U.S. and South Korean officials told The New York Times that there is no immediate evidence that there has been a coup.
“The last time was when everyone was predicting that Kim Jong-un would be pushed aside by his more experienced uncle, and look what happened to him,” a senior official told the paper.
After surviving several earlier purges, Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was publicly shamed and then executed on treason charges in December 2013.
Geoffery Cain wrote in The Global Post that some analysts believe the 31-year-old leader’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong has been running the country in his absence.
“She is one of the only people in that we know has unfettered direct access to KJU. At the present time I would not be surprised if she is sole gatekeeper,” Michael Madden, who runs the North Korea Leadership Watch blog, told Cain.
The article points out that little is known about the sister, believed to be born in the late 80s, but in March she appeared on state television as a senior official.
Kim, for his part, missed a meeting of the country’s parliament late last month, and was absent again from a gathering this week to mark his late father’s election as ruling party head.
Adding to the uncertainty, Kim has not been seen in North Korean media reports greeting the athletes who returned from the Asian Games — though they were given a lavish reception and heavy media coverage when they returned to the capital.
Kim is usually a near-constant one-man show in state media, but he has kept a low profile before. In 2012, he wasn’t seen publicly for about three weeks, South Korean officials say.
“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,” Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea expert at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, told The Times.
FoxNews.com / The Associated Press contributed to this report