North Korea’s leader was not in his customary seat at high-level government meeting Thursday. The conspicuous absence from the Supreme People’s Assembly, or SPA, has many wondering just why Kim Jong Un hasn’t been seen in weeks.
Kim, the third member of his family to rule the country, has not missed an assembly meeting since taking power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011.
The Associated Press reports he has not been seen in public or covered by state media since a Sept. 3 appearance at a concert in Pyongyang.
The lack of coverage has South Korean media outlets speculating the leader might be in poor health.
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Toshimitsu Shigemura, an authority on North Korean affairs at Tokyo’s Waseda University, said the rumors of Kim’s poor health appear to be credible.
“There have been lots of reports that Kim is not in good health, supported by video footage of him walking with a noticeable limp at an event in July and again earlier this month,” Shigemura told The Telegraph. "It was clear that he could not walk fast or in a straight line.”
Numerous media outlets have noted Kim’s dramatic weight gain since taking power. Most attribute that to the stress associated with leading the country. At least one, the Daily Mirror, blames his love of fine food, and a fondness for rich cheese in particular, which he developed while studying in Switzerland.
But Chris Green, a South Korea-based journalist who covers North Korean news, said Kim’s absence from the assembly is not quite as big a deal as some suppose.
“Kim Jong Il didn't attend every time, either,” Green said. “Moreover, we know that the SPA primarily performs a demonstrative function, it is not a true decision-making body.”
Shigemura said his absence may have nothing to do with illness at all.
“Another reason why Kim may be reluctant to appear in public is the ongoing power struggle inside the North Korean military, which means that the situation in Pyongyang is still unstable,” Shigemura said. “Or, there is the possibility that there has been some sort of accident.”
That possible struggle was hinted at in December by The Washington Post when it reported that Kim had ordered the execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was the leader’s one-time mentor and the country’s second most powerful man.
A recent North Korean media report said the leader was simply suffering from “discomfort,” according to a story from The Guardian.