For the first time in three years, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was not on a list of dignitaries at a celebration of the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party.
The apparent no-show will add to mounting speculation that something is amiss with the young leader, who hasn’t been seen publicly in more than a month.
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.
State media earlier said that the might of the party “is growing stronger under the seasoned guidance of Marshal Kim Jong-un.”
Al Jazeera’s Teresa Bo, reporting from Pyongyang, said that this year’s celebrations were not as big as previous ones, and that she was told that it was not a surprise that Kim did not make an appearance.
“We’re being told that [a bigger celebration] is expected next year which is the 70th anniversary of the Workers’ Party.”
Kim, who is thought to be 31, hasn’t been seen performing his customary public duties in state media since he attended a concert on September 3. He had been walking with a limp and was more overweight than usual in images that aired before that.
An official documentary from late last month described him as dealing with “discomfort,” which led to international speculation that he may be ill.
North Korea strictly controls information about its government and elite, so much of what happens in Pyongyang’s inner circles is hidden from the eyes of outsiders and even many average North Koreans.
This leaves media in South Korea and elsewhere to speculate, sometimes wildly, about what’s really going on.
Some reports indicate that Kim could have gout, diabetes – even, from a British news story, a cheese addiction – much of it based on that single line in the documentary and unidentified sources speaking to South Korean media. A source it described as close to the country’s leadership saying Kim was in firm control of his government but had hurt his leg taking part in a military drill.
South Korean officials are playing down the speculation.
In Seoul, Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong Cheol told reporters yesterday that Kim appears to still be in charge of key affairs.
Lim noted that a high-level North Korean delegation conveyed a greetings message to South Korean President Park Geun-hye during their surprise visit to South Korea last week. Lim said Pyongyang’s state media has continuously reported about Kim’s leadership.
North Korea has said nothing publicly about Kim’s absence.
But it is not the first time he has taken a break from the media spotlight – Kim wasn’t seen publicly for about three weeks in 2012, South Korean officials say – and a senior North Korean official on last week’s visit to the South told a South Korean official that Kim was fine. – Al Jazeera.