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Increasing speculation

Esther Felden / sri
October 10, 2014

North Korea's ruling Workers' Party celebrated its 69th anniversary - without Kim Jong Un, the country's leader. He has been out of the public eye now for more than a month, sparking widespread rumors about his fate.

Kim Jong-Un
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Rodong Sinmun

Will Kim take part in the celebrations marking his party's 69th anniversary or not? This question preoccupied North Korea observers and the international media in the past week. They got their answer on Friday when Kim failed to make an appearance at the ceremony.

Kim's name did not appear on the guest list published by North Korea's state media. However, the man seen as North Korea's number two, Hwang Pyong So, was reportedly in attendance. And the speculation surrounding the Kim's whereabouts therefore continues.

Although he is a dictator, Kim is considered to be much more open to media coverage about him than his father Kim Jong-Il was. For instance, whenever the younger Kim made public appearances, whether visiting a factory or military installations or even an amusement park, cameras were always present.

"Kim Jong Un has allowed himself to be more approachable for the media and people," said Rüdiger Frank, East Asia expert at the University of Vienna and an author of the book on the world's most-isolated nation.

Kim Jong Un Nordkorea
The current system is built around a single leader, and at the the moment that person is clearly Kim Jong Un, says FrankImage: Reuters/KCNA

But it has all changed for the past one month, after Kim disappeared from the public eye. He last appeared in public on September 3 when he attended a concert alongside his wife.

At that time, the dictator limped and appeared to be in pain when he walked. The images from that appearance laid the foundation for widespread rumors surrounding the health of the young dictator, which has since only built up.

Much speculation, few facts

There is, however, the question of whether Kim Jong Un's absence might have anything to do with political developments in the country. Could Kim have been disempowered?

That's what North Koreans living in exile claimed on the news site "New Focus International" after the three highest-raking officials after Kim Jong Un paid a surprise visit to South Korea to hold talks. To support their coup theory they point out that the delegation used Kim Jong Un's airplane to travel south.

The unexpected visit to South Korea by three high-level North Korean leaders was very striking, said Aidan-Foster Carter, an honorary research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University.

They didn't seem to me like anybody's delegates, but rather like the people who are running the show," he told DW, adding that even without talking about anything as dramatic as a coup, "I am beginning to entertain the possibility of a power shift as well."

But Frank has a different view. The analyst argues that during his visit to North Korea three weeks ago he wasn't able to see any indications that would point to such a development. "Compared to last year the incumbent leader's name was used more frequently in slogans and on paper," Frank told DW.

The current system is built around a single leader, and at the the moment that person is clearly Kim Jong Un. Without him, the system wouldn't work. This is why Frank believes that a public coup is unrealistic. "From the view of the elites in the country such a move would be very foolish. What's much more likely is that different groups are vying to influence him – but not replace him. "

The South Korean government has also distanced itself from such speculation. According to the Yonhap news agency, a Ministry of Unification spokesperson said that the North Korean leader appears to be fulfilling his official duties as usual.

A new political style?

Unlike international media, the North Korean press barely reports about his physical condition or why Kim Jong Un hasn't been seen in public lately. The only mentioned in a documentary broadcast by state media is that the young leader was suffering from "discomfort."

Moreover, Frank argues that the ruler's health condition is never an "official topic." Nevertheless, the analyst believes that rumors are also circulating in the isolated country given that images showing the leader limping have also been broadcast on state TV.

Frank, however, is of the view that this could well be a tactical move by the ruler. "He may be using his illness to show that he is also just a human being who is sacrificing himself for the sake of his people."

Back to business?

The head of state hasn't been seen in public since September 3. But when even Kim Jong Un eventually reemerges this will not necessarily mean that all questions regarding his disappearance will be fully answered. "What usually happens is that he suddenly reappears in public and everything continues as if nothing had happened", said Frank.

Nordkorea Gründungstag Parade in Pyongyang
The 69th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party took place without Kim Jong UnImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Kyodo

But the analyst also points out that given that so many things are different about Kim Jong Un when compared with his predecessor that one shouldn't exclude anything. "At the end of the day there is only one thing left: uncertainty."

In statements unrelated to the latest developments Frank writes in his latest book: "The more important a political element of the North Korean system becomes, the less concrete knowledge we have and the more we depend on rumors." This sentence certainly fits well in the case of the currently missing dictator Kim Jong Un.