SEOUL: North Korean state media has confirmed that leader Kim Jong-Un is suffering “discomfort” in its first comment on health issues believed to be behind his three week absence from public view.
In an hour-long documentary entitled “Days of guidance for the people” that was aired Thursday, state television showed a limping Kim visiting a factory outside Pyongyang, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported Friday.
At one point, the narrator of the documentary said Kim had kept up his field guidance trips “passionately leading the way for his people despite suffering discomfort.”
It is highly unusual for state media to report on a North Korean leader’s health, and the documentary may have been aired to address growing speculation.
The young leader, who is believed to be 30 or 31, has not been seen in public since he attended a music concert with his wife on September 3.
The documentary was aired before a recording of Thursday’s gathering of North Korea’s parliament at which Kim was a notable absentee.
The South’s permanently primed North Korea rumor mill has been feeding off Kim’s extended absence, with reports that he might be suffering from gout, diabetes, or high blood pressure—or all three.
One source told Yonhap that a North Korean medical team had visited Germany and Switzerland for consultations on Kim’s health issues.
In a press briefing Friday, the South’s Unification Ministry refused to add to the speculation.
“We are watching with various possibilities in mind, including the rumors about health problems,” a ministry spokeswoman said.
The North’s Supreme People’s Assembly, or parliament, only meets once or twice a year to rubber-stamp budgets or other decisions made by the ruling party.
It has little real power and there is no onus on Kim to attend when it is convened, although Thursday’s session was the first he has missed since assuming power three year ago.
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 since assuming power on the death of his father Kim Jong-Il in 2011.
Hong Hyun-Ik, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute think-tank in Seoul, warned against reading too much into Kim’s absence.
“Curiosity about Kim Jong-Un’s well-being tends to be overblown in the South,” Hong said.
Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, stressed that Kim’s name was not entirely absent from the report published by the North’s official KCNA news agency on the parliamentary session.
The KCNA despatch said the assembly had elected three people to the North’s powerful National Defence Commission (NDC) “at the proposal of Marshal Kim Jong-Un”.
One of those elected was Kim confidante Hwang Pyong-So, who was promoted to NDC vice chairman.
“Even if he’s not in great shape, there appears to be little change in Kim’s grip on power,” Yang said.