SEOUL, South Korea — In most countries, footage showing the leader with a limp might have generated some curiosity. But in tightly controlled North Korea, those images — coupled with the disappearance of the country’s ruler, Kim Jong-un, from public view for five weeks — have generated endless debate among foreign officials and analysts always on the lookout for upheaval in one of the world’s most dangerous police states.
The disappearance is especially notable because Mr. Kim, like his father and grandfather before him, has used public appearances accompanied by fawning subjects as a key tool of the propaganda machine that has long held the state together.
For now, American and South Korean officials say that while they think the young leader might be ailing, there is no sign that there has been a coup. After three generations of Kims, any shift away from dynastic rule would probably involve unusual movements of the country’s million-plus military or its people, and none have been detected by the South.
And the fact that North Korea sent three officials widely seen as the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 in the country’s hierarchy to attend the recent closing ceremony of the Asian Games in South Korea, and that during their visit they agreed to resume official dialogue with Seoul, suggests that Mr. Kim remains in control, according to officials and analysts in South Korea.
In Washington, officials have waved off coup rumors as the wishful thinking of people who have spent years looking for signs of regime collapse and been serially disappointed.
“The last time was when everyone was predicting that Kim Jong-un would be pushed aside by his more experienced uncle,” said one senior official. “And look what happened to him.”
That uncle, Jang Song-thaek, 67, got on his nephew’s bad side over business deals and power plays involving some in the elite, and was executed last year, according to accounts pieced together by American and South Korean officials at the time. That has spawned rumors that disaffected members of the ruling party or military, eager to settle scores, are at it again, but officials say there is far more speculation of such a plot than evidence.
But given the secretive nature of the North Korean government, and the consequences of turmoil in a nuclear-armed and often belligerent country, the official doubts about any power shifts have done little to stop speculation.
Some of the rumors are relatively benign, suggesting that the corpulent Mr. Kim is simply recovering from that nemesis of many a leader with a soft spot for rich food: gout. But others suggest that Mr. Kim, who is believed to be about 30, has finally lost power to older North Korean power brokers more schooled in the country’s treacherous politics, either through a planned revolt or a more subtle takeover that would leave him as a figurehead.
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.
One reason for the proliferation of theories is that rumors in North Korea have sometimes turned out to be true. These include news of the country’s devastating famine in the 1990s as well as the more recent (and unpopular) currency reform, which in both cases first surfaced in poorly sourced reports.
But there is also always the temptation to believe the worst of a family-ruled country that has little exposure to the outside world and has displayed its share of oddities, and cruelties. At least in earshot of their many minders, regular North Koreans credit the Kims with godlike feats. And although experts say Mr. Kim did not feed his uncle to dogs as one Chinese blog post suggested, South Korean intelligence officials said some of the uncle’s lieutenants were executed by machine gun.
In gauging what has happened to Mr. Kim, some analysts have noted that his father and grandfather also disappeared for weeks on end.
“Kim Jong-un’s disappearing act over the past month, in the North Korean context, is not an aberration,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea expert at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. “Such vanishing acts would be most unusual in democracies, but in totalitarian North Korea, Kim is the state. He is free to come and go as he pleases.”
Mr. Kim, however, has never been gone from sight this long and, until now, had been notably visible, visiting farms, factories and military units more frequently than his reclusive father did.
The visits are always covered prominently in the North’s state-controlled news media and include what passes for statecraft in North Korea; like his father and grandfather, Mr. Kim is followed on the “on-site guidance tours” by party functionaries and generals about twice his age who furiously scribble down his thoughts on how to make improvements.
For now, foreign officials and analysts are anxiously waiting for Friday, the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party, to see if Mr. Kim will make a public appearance. Speaking at a parliamentary hearing this week, Han Min-koo, the South Korean defense minister, said that his country’s intelligence had determined that Mr. Kim was “at a certain place north of Pyongyang.” Mr. Han gave no further details, citing the sensitivity of the intelligence. His remark was widely taken as meaning that Mr. Kim was recuperating at a family villa in Gangdong, north of the North Korean capital, and that the government in Seoul did not believe that Mr. Kim had lost power in a coup.
North Korean diplomats in New York and Geneva have dismissed reports about Mr. Kim’s absence as part of efforts by their country’s external enemies to spread disinformation to undermine the Pyongyang government. One of the three North Korean officials visiting the South last Saturday, the party secretary Kim Yang-gon, told Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae of South Korea that there was “no problem at all” with Kim Jong-un’s health, according to Mr. Ryoo.
Other than Mr. Kim’s absence, there are few outward signs of trouble in the North. The North Korean media is brimming, as usual, with propaganda extolling his leadership. On Tuesday, the North’s main party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, intoned that the people and military of North Korea “knew no other leader than the marshal.” Daily NK, a Seoul-based website that says it uses anonymous sources within the North, reported North Korean citizens watching the Asian Games on large screens in central Pyongyang in recent weeks while the media there attributed any victory by North Korean athletes to the “greatness” of Mr. Kim.
Most analysts in South Korea conclude that Mr. Kim has been kept from the cameras since Sept. 3 simply because he is suffering from some ailment.
With so much internal propaganda focused on Mr. Kim, John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, said that if Mr. Kim had surgery and was recuperating, the North would probably not want to release images of him in a wheelchair. North Korea kept Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, out of public view for months after he suffered a stroke in 2008.
In any case, Mr. Delury said the speculation would not end until the young Mr. Kim appeared in public.
“At some point if Kim fails to appear in public, then we can assume there is a serious problem,” he said. “The question is how long?”
via The New York Times
David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington.