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Rumors swirling over Kim absence

North Korea’s leader hasn’t been seen for several weeks

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves during a parade in July 2013 celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Korean War’s end. (Associated Press)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves during a parade in July 2013 celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Korean War’s end. (Associated Press)
Carol J. Williams Los Angeles Times

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 have reported that Kim suffers from gout, which might explain why he appeared to be limping the last time he was spotted in public 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 that Kim has become a mere “figurehead” as leader.

Lewis calls the speculation on an internal coup “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.

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.

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