After a 40-day absence from the public, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reports that the leader Kim Jong-un has made visits to two separate places, although details remain fairly scant. If reports from KCNA and the Rodong Sinmun are true, then weeks of speculation about the severity of possible health problems, or even a possible coup, appear to have been premature. However, discerning what is actually happening in Pyongyang remains a difficult process that involves as much speculation as it does hard analysis.
KCNA reported Tuesday morning that Kim visited the recently completed Wisong Scientists Residential District and “gave field guidance.” The news outlet also reported that he “visited the newly built Natural Energy Institute of the State Academy of Sciences” on the same day, without explicitly saying what day that was. No mention of the leader’s health was made.
The Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party, provided photos of the public outing, in which Kim was seen making use of a cane while touring and laughing with senior officials. Among those officials were Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong-so and Workers’ Party secretary Choe Ryong Hae, who were also part of a surprise, high-level delegation to Seoul during the Asian Games on October 4, at the height of speculation as to the whereabouts of North Korea’s young new leader. Their visit was seen as a sign of reassurance to South Korea that Kim’s health situation was not serious, and that there were no leadership issues in Pyongyang.
While neither news outlet definitively states when Kim made this recent appearance, an AFP report does point out that KCNA “usually reports such events the day after,” suggesting the visit may have happened on Monday. More importantly, it appears that North Korea’s leadership is beginning to take seriously the international media’s acute attention to this issue. While the theory of a possible coup never had much supporting evidence, given no major troop movements and a continuation of high-level diplomacy, speculation about Kim’s health has been rampant since an official documentary in late September mentioned he was experiencing some unidentified “discomfort.” His appearance with a cane will continue to fuel that speculation, yet whether his problems are gout, diabetes, or some as yet unspecified injury or ailment is unclear.