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 yesterday 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 did not 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 yesterday, 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 was not 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, of 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, former North Korean leader 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 Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, South Korean Ministry of Unification spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol said.
Cheong said Kim Jong-un appeared in the recently released images to have lost about 10kg compared with 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 Jong-un “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 Jong-un was looking to quickly quell rumors that his health problems were serious enough to threaten his status as North Korean leader, Lim said.
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