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[Newsmaker] Kim Jong-un’s prolonged absence from public stokes speculation

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un delivers a speech during a visit to a defense development exhibition, Self-Defence-2021, in Pyongyang last month. (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un delivers a speech during a visit to a defense development exhibition, Self-Defence-2021, in Pyongyang last month. (KCNA-Yonhap)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been missing from public view for more than a month, fueling speculation over his whereabouts, as it marks his longest absence since 2014.  

The last time Kim appeared in a public setting was on Oct. 11 when he delivered a speech at a rare defense exhibition in Pyongyang that showcased the country’s new weaponry, according to state media.

Since then there have been reports of him sending letters to foreign leaders and his people, but he has not been seen at any official events. Recent satellite imagery showed increased activity at his seaside resort in Wonsan, the country’s east coast, and another mansion near the capital, suggesting he may have stayed at these sites during his current hiatus, online site NK News reported.

Since taking power in 2011, Kim had stayed out of the limelight from time to time, with past extended breaks often leading to a series of speculation about his health.  

The longest absence was in 2014, when he went missing from the public eye for 40 days, prompting rumors that he was critically ill or even dead. He later reappeared with a cane, which South Korea’s spy agency said was because he had a cyst removed from his ankle.

A public absence of three weeks last year fueled global speculation that he was gravely ill after botched heart surgery, while some reports suggesting he was already dead.

Kim’s disappearances have become more frequent since the onset of the pandemic in 2020. This year alone, he has been gone from public view for two or more weeks on six occasions.

The Seoul government cautioned against reading too much into the leader’s disappearance.

“In the past, there have been many cases when Kim’s public activities have not been reported (in the state media) for a long time, so it is difficult to attribute concrete meaning into this or make an assessment,” Cha Duk-chul, the deputy spokesman of the Unification Ministry said Friday, adding that the ministry would continue to monitor Kim’s activities.

In recent months, Kim’s health has been at the center of fresh speculation due to his noticeable weight loss.

South Korea’s spy agency last month, however, ruled out health problems, saying the leader has recently lost about 20 kilograms, but remains healthy.

Observers say Kim’s long absence is because there hasn’t been a major holiday since the founding anniversary of its ruling Workers’ Party on Oct. 10. Kim could possibly appear again to the public on Nov. 29, the new holiday to commemorate the country’s successful 2017 launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, or on Dec. 17, the death anniversary of Kim’s father Kim Jong-il.


By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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