(By Belinda Cranston, ANU, 10 OCT 2014) Why hasn’t Kim Jong Un been seen for 37 days? All sorts of conspiracy theories abound. Are ankle problems the reason the North Korean leader is lying low, as reported by the hermit kingdom’s officials? Or is something more sinister at stake, like a coup?
It was hoped that all would be revealed on Friday, when celebrations marking the 69th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s ruling party begin in Pyongyang.
The occasion would normally see the supreme leader on the podium of Kim Il-Sung Square, greeting a parade of workers and peasants passing by. But the North Korean leader has apparently missed this key political event.
Speaking before the event, North Korea expert Dr Leonid Petrov, from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, said, “it will probably look more suspicious than ever if he doesn’t appear.”
Footage of Kim in North Korean media a couple of months ago showed the North Korean dictator limping.
At an occasion to mark the 61st anniversary of the end of the Korean War, on 27 July, he was unusually subdued, fuelling rumours he had suffered a stroke.
“If he did survive a minor stroke, maybe his left side is a bit affected by that,” Petrov said.
Kim is also said to have suffered diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.
When he failed to show on 9 September for National Day commemorations, the rumour mill went into overdrive.
If an injury required a major operation, it was possible Kim was recovering in a wheel chair, a look he would not want to sport for fear of being perceived as weak, Petrov suggested.
It is also possible Kim is afraid of assassination. Late last year he reportedly arranged for his uncle’s execution, because he feared he was disloyal to the North Korean regime.
This year’s release of the American film, The Interview, a comedy about journalists on an undercover mission to assassinate Kim, has further fuelled rumours Kim fears for his life.
Petrov isn’t convinced, noting Kim’s many public appearances in the first part of 2014.
In early January, visiting former-US basketball star Dennis Rodman sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to Kim, publicly cementing the unusual friendship between the two.
But the North Korean leader didn’t show during Rodman’s third visit to North Korea.
“That shows that he is getting a bit cautious about his meetings and public appearances,” Petrov added.
Without Kim or his family in power, the North Korean regime would probably struggle.
“The system would need to find some sort of figure head to replace him,” Petrov said.
His sister Kim Yo-jong is rumoured to be now running the show, but Petrov isn’t convinced she is, given North Korea’s perception of women.
“Women are not supposed to occupy the central position in power politics,” he said.
What of other rumours, like Kim being under house arrest or even dead?
Until Kim makes an appearance soon, Petrov believes the most likely scenario is that the North Korean dictator is unwell.
“Maybe incapacitated. Yes, it is possible, he may have had a stroke and is in bad shape.”
This article is from the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific