There is nothing wrong with the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, a top official said during a rare visit to the South, after speculation of a debilitating illness and even wild rumours of a coup in Pyongyang.
Kim has not been seen in public for more than a month — an unexplained absence that loomed large over the surprise visit on Saturday by a trio of his top officials and closest aides.
South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-Jae, who held talks with the delegation, said on Sunday that one member, Kim Yang-Gon, had insisted the young leader had no medical issues.
“There is nothing wrong with the health of Secretary Kim,” he quoted Kim Yang-Gon as saying.
Kim Yang-Gon heads a ruling party department in charge of South Korea-related affairs, and his reported comment was the first by a senior official on Kim Jong-Un’s wellbeing.
“Given his tone, here were remarks sufficient to believe that Kim Jong-Un has no problem with his health,” Ryoo said.
At the same time, no explanation was provided for why Kim had dropped from public view since he was last seen attending a music concert with his wife on September 3.
Saturday’s delegation was led by the vice chairman of the North’s powerful National Defence Commission, Hwang Pyong-So, who is widely viewed as Kim’s de-facto number two.
Ryoo said Hwang had asked him to deliver a “heartfelt greeting” from Kim Jong-Un to South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, but there was no specific message from the leader.
– Limping and overweight –
Before Kim dropped out of sight, footage shown on state TV had shown him walking with a pronounced limp.
Kim, believed to be 30 or 31, is a heavy smoker and has noticeably gained weight since taking over as paramount leader following the death of his father Kim Jong-Il in 2011.
Prior to Kim Yang-Gon’s comment, the only word from the North had been a media report that Kim was in some “discomfort”.
Kim’s failure to attend a rare second session of the North’s rubber stamp parliament last month ramped up the speculation that he was seriously ill or injured.
Sources and medical experts cited by the South Korean media suggested he might be suffering from gout, diabetes, or high blood pressure — or all three.
The South’s largest selling daily Chosun Ilbo said he had had surgery after fracturing both ankles, while the Yonhap news agency cited diplomatic sources in Washington saying his ankles were blistered and swollen.
Another report said a North Korean medical team had visited Germany and Switzerland for consultations on Kim’s health issues.
There were even rumours that Kim might have been ousted by a coup, partly fuelled by reports of an extended travel ban issued to Pyongyang residents.
It is by no means unprecedented for a North Korean leader to drop out of the public eye for a while, but it is more noticeable with Kim, who has maintained a particularly pervasive media presence.
A key indicator will come on Friday when the North celebrates the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party.
“That is a big event, and even if Kim is in some discomfort, he will make sure he is seen to attend,” said Michael Madden, editor of the independent website North Korea Leadership Watch.
“If he doesn’t, the alarm bells will really start ringing,” Madden said.