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Where In The World Is Kim Jong Un?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits Breeding Station No. 621 of the Korean People's Army on Aug. 21. He hasn't been seen in public since Sept. 3.
Xinhua /Landov
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits Breeding Station No. 621 of the Korean People's Army on Aug. 21. He hasn't been seen in public since Sept. 3.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hasn't been seen in public in more than a month, leading to speculation that he might have been deposed or is merely indisposed. For now, though, Western and South Korean officials are awaiting a Friday event to mark the 69th anniversary of the North's ruling Workers' Party to see if Kim makes an appearance.

Here's what is known: TV footage showed Kim walking with a limp as far back as July. His last public appearance was at a Sept. 3 concert featuring the Moranbong Band, a group of five young women all handpicked by the North Korean dictator. Later that month, North Korean TV reported that Kim was suffering from "discomfort." Since then, he has missed a meeting of North Korea's parliament and an event to mark his late father's election as head of the Workers' Party.

The absence of details of why Kim hasn't been seen in public has given way to rumor.

Reuters reports that some "Pyongyang watchers" believe Kim may have been the victim of a power struggle. Their view was bolstered when a senior delegation from the North unexpectedly visited South Korea last weekend for the closing ceremony of the Asian Games.

The Wall Street Journal, in its story on the rumors surrounding Kim's absence, cited a news report from New Focus International, a news agency run by defectors from North Korea, that said the power structure in the secretive communist country has changed recently. New Focus says Kim is now merely a figurehead for the country's real rulers, members of the Organization and Guidance Department.

The New York Times, in its story, reported: "In an indication of the breathless nature of the online rumor mill, one story circulated on social media in China went so far as to name the engineer of the purported coup, Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok. The only catch: Mr. Jo was reported to have died several years ago."

But it's Kim's health that Western and South Korean officials believe has kept him out of the public eye.

The Times reported that the North Korean leader, known for his lavish lifestyle and tastes, might have the rich man's disease: gout. Kim has visibly gained weight since he came to power in 2011. Reuters cited an unnamed source in Beijing with "close ties to Pyongyang and Beijing" as saying Kim aggravated an injury to his ankle and knee that he suffered in late August or early September. The injury reportedly needs three months to heal.

The South Korean government has dismissed reports of a coup in the North. Defense Minister Han Min-koo told a parliamentary hearing this week that Kim was at a location north of his capital, Pyongyang. The Times reported that his "remark was widely taken as meaning that Mr. Kim was recuperating at a family villa in Gangdong."

But with each passing day, the rumors about Kim only grow. This is adding to the importance being given to Friday's 69th anniversary event, though in more normal years his absence would not be seen as unusual because, as The Times notes, "such anniversaries are generally given more weight when they are landmark years." Kim did, however, attend the event in each of the past two years.

"At some point if Kim fails to appear in public, then we can assume there is a serious problem," John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, told The Times. "The question is how long?"

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Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.