SEOUL, South Korea – After vanishing from the public eye for nearly six weeks, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is back, ending rumors that he was gravely ill, deposed or worse.
Now, a new, albeit smaller, mystery has emerged: Why the cane?
Kim, who was last seen publicly at a Sept. 3 concert, appeared in images released by state media Tuesday smiling broadly and supporting himself with a walking stick while touring the newly built Wisong Scientists Residential District and another new institute in Pyongyang, part of his regular "field guidance" tours. The North didn't say when the visit happened, nor did it address the leader's health.
Kim's appearance allowed the country's massive propaganda apparatus to continue doing what it does best — glorify the third generation of Kim family rule. And it will tamp down, at least for the moment, rampant rumors of a coup and serious health problems.
Before Tuesday, Kim missed several high-profile events that he normally attends and was described in an official documentary last month as experiencing "discomfort."
Archive footage from August showed him overweight and limping, prompting the South Korean media to speculate he had undergone surgery on his ankles. Some experts thought he was suffering from gout or diabetes.
A South Korean analyst said Kim probably broke his media silence to dispel outside speculation that he wasn't in control and to win sympathy from a domestic audience by creating the image of a leader who works through pain.
The appearance may be a form of "emotional politics meant to appeal to the North Korean people's sympathy," said Cheong Seong-chang, at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea.
It was the first time a North Korean leader allowed himself to be seen relying on a cane or crutch, South Korean officials said. Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, who reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008 before dying of a heart attack in late 2011, was seen limping but never with a walking stick, nor was the country's founder and Kim Jong Un's grandfather, Kim Il Sung, said Lim Byeong Cheol, a spokesman from Seoul's Unification Ministry.
Cheong said Kim appeared in the recently released images to have lost about 22 pounds compared to pictures from May. He speculated that since Kim was holding a cane on his left side he may have had surgery on his left ankle.
Kim "appears to want to show people that he's doing fine, though he's indeed still having some discomfort. If he hadn't done so, excessive speculation would have continued to flare up and anxiety among North Korean residents would have grown and calls by outsiders for contingency plans on dealing with North Korea would have gotten momentum," Cheong said.
The South Korean government has all along seen no signals of any major problems.
In deciding to resume his public activity before fully recovering from his condition, Kim was looking to quickly quell rumors that his health problems were serious enough to threaten his status as North Korean leader, said Lim, the government spokesman.
"The cane aside, he looked to be in good health," Lim said.
The recent absence was, in part, "probably an attention-getting device — and it certainly works," Bruce Cumings, an expert on Korea at the University of Chicago, said in an email.
"The North has been on a diplomatic offensive in Europe and elsewhere, it feels isolated — and is, if we're talking about relations with Washington," he wrote. "All this puts them back on the front page."