SEOUL, South Korea – For the first time in three years, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un didn't appear at a celebration of the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party on Friday, further increasing speculation that something is amiss with the authoritarian leader who hasn't been seen publicly in more than a month.
North Korea's propaganda machine conveyed the no-show to the world in its typical murky and indirect fashion — a state media dispatch that excluded Kim's name from a list of senior government, military and party officials who paid their respects at an event marking the party's 69th anniversary. Indications that Kim remains firmly in power were evident, however. His name appeared on a flower basket placed before statues of his father and grandfather, both of whom also ruled North Korea, and an earlier dispatch said that the might of the party "is growing stronger under the seasoned guidance of Marshal Kim Jong Un."
State media hasn't shown Kim, who is thought to be 31, performing his customary public duties since he attended a concert Sept. 3. He had been walking with a limp and was more overweight than usual in images that aired before that. An official documentary from late last month described him as dealing with "discomfort," which led to international speculation that he may be ill.
Much of what happens in Pyongyang's inner circles is hidden from the eyes of outsiders and even many average North Koreans. This leaves media in South Korea and elsewhere to speculate, sometimes wildly, about what's really happening. Some reports indicate that Kim could have gout, diabetes or other ailments, much of the speculation based on that single reference in the documentary and unidentified sources speaking to South Korean media.
South Korean officials are playing down the speculation.
In Seoul, Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong Cheol told reporters Friday that Kim appears to be in charge of key affairs. Lim noted that a high-level North Korean delegation conveyed a greetings message to South Korean President Park Geun-hye during their surprise visit to South Korea last week. Lim said Pyongyang's state media has continuously reported about Kim's leadership.
North Korea has said nothing publicly about Kim's absence. But it is not his first break from the media spotlight — Kim Jong Un wasn't seen publicly for about three weeks in 2012, South Korean officials say — and a senior North Korean official on last week's visit to the South told a South Korean official that Kim was fine.
Without the extended absence, Kim's absence Friday would not be all that important or unusual. Such anniversaries generally have more weight in landmark years. A high-profile celebration, for example, is expected for next year's 70th anniversary of the ruling party.
Because Pyongyang is publicly acknowledging Kim's "discomfort," many analysts believe that he's unlikely to be suffering from anything particularly serious. When his father, Kim Jong Il, suffered major health problems late in his life, state media said nothing. Kim Jong Il was believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008, and his death on Dec. 17, 2011, was not announced for two days.
But each day the younger Kim is absent only adds to the speculation. He missed a meeting of parliament late last month and a gathering this week to mark his late father's election as ruling party head. Kim also was not seen in North Korean media reports greeting the athletes who returned from the Asian Games in the South, although the athletes were welcomed home with a lavish reception and heavy media coverage.
AP writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul and Eric Talmadge in Tokyo contributed to this report.