North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his first public appearance in six weeks, during a visit to a new residential block as he ended a period of seclusion that prompted speculation about his grip on power. Rodong Sinmun daily newspaper carried several photographs of Mr. Kim using a walking stick as he toured the newly built Wisong Scientists Residential District and another new institute.
He “took necessary steps with loving care” and vowed to turn the area into a “world-class science city,” a dispatch early Tuesday from the official Korean Central News Agency said in typical fawning style. The North didn’t say when the visit happened, nor did it address the leader’s health.
Nevertheless the absence of the 32-year-old leader has prompted a flurry of speculation about his health. Some have even questioned if he remains in control of the state.
Kim was last seen on Sept. 3, at a concert with his wife, Ri Sol Ju. Three weeks later, he missed a meeting of the rubber-stamp parliament, the Supreme People’s Assembly, his first such absence since he assumed power in 2011. Two days later, Sept. 27, the capital Pyongyang was put on lockdown; since then, only senior regime leaders have been allowed to enter or leave.
Kim was, by turns, reported to be suffering from gout, from diabetes, from a brain hemorrhage, from a heart ailment, from a leg injury that required surgery from a French doctor, from mental illness or, according to a head-turning British report, from a cheese addiction.
The speculation was partly a result of Kim missing several high-profile events that he normally attends and his description in an official documentary last month as experiencing “discomfort.” Archive footage from August showed him overweight and limping.
Foreign media had no trouble filling the void that followed. From Saturday Night Live spoofs to the wild theories of journalists across the globe trying to parse his growing absence from the public eye, Kim captured nearly as many headlines as he did when he threatened to nuke his enemies last year.
At the same time this bewildering ability to command attention by doing nothing says a lot about the North’s propaganda focus on Kim as the center of everything. Remove for 40 days the sun around which that propaganda spins and the international media, both traditional and social, exploded with curiosity.