Even when Kim Jong Un was nowhere to be seen, he was everywhere.
From spoofs on Saturday Night Live in the US to the wild theories of journalists across the globe trying to parse his five-week absence from the public eye, the leader of North Korea captured nearly as many headlines as he did when he threatened to nuke his enemies last year.
The mystery ended yesterday when Kim appeared in state media, smiling broadly and supporting himself with a cane.
While touring the newly built Wisong Scientists Residential District and another new institutes in Pyongyang, Kim “took necessary steps with loving care”, a dispatch from the official Korean Central News Agency said in typical fawning style.
The North did not say when the visit happened, nor did it address the leader’s health.
This bewildering ability to command attention by doing nothing says a lot about the North’s mastery of a propaganda apparatus that puts Kim at the centre of everything. Remove for 40 days the sun around which that propaganda spins and the international media, both traditional and social, explode with speculation and rumours.
It also speaks to the fundamental difficulties everyone outside North Korea — academics, government officials, reporters — faces in understanding what really happens inside a small, poor, autocratic country that jealously guards its internal workings as it ignores demands by the US and its powerful allies to give up its nuclear weapons.
It is no mistake that the world obsesses about Kim’s extended time off from his usual, seemingly constant series of inspection tours of factories and frontline military bases. Ever since 1948, when Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, founded the country as a socialist rival to the US-backed South, the Kim family has successfully sold the notion, at home and abroad, that they are North Korea.
The last time Kim had been seen in state media was at a September 3 concert. In the weeks between, he missed several high-profile events he normally attends. An official documentary released late last month made a single reference to Kim’s “discomfort” and showed video footage from August of him overweight and limping.
Many analysts believe that while Kim may have some health issues, he is probably not in serious trouble. But many other people asked while Kim was out of the spotlight.
“Is Kim Jong Un brain dead?” a South Korean lawmaker asked Admiral Choi Yoon-hee, head of the joint chiefs of staff, during a parliamentary hearing on Monday. Choi said no, and, without elaborating, said Kim’s health problems “are not severe enough to disrupt his status as the ruler of the country”.
There were many reasons to believe that, even before he reappeared.
No unusual troop movements or other signs of a possible coup emerged. Diplomacy at the highest level continues: Three members of his inner circle made a surprise visit to the South, something analysts say would be impossible without the leader’s blessing. Foreign tourists and aid workers still travel to the North, and there have been no reports of new restrictions or warnings for diplomats.
There is also nothing particularly unusual about North Korean leaders laying low for extended periods. Kim’s late father, Kim Jong Il, would disappear at times; Kim Jong Un, who seems to genuinely enjoy being at the centre of things, took off without a word for three weeks in 2012.
However, the apparent vanishing act of a man long seen in foreign media as a cartoonish, all-powerful overlord sitting on a nuclear arsenal while his people starve has proven endlessly fascinating. And while there is plenty of informed analysis from experts and frequent visitors to Pyongyang, there seems to be even more thinly sourced speculation.
Kim is, by turns, reported to be suffering from gout, diabetes, a brain haemorrhage, a heart ailment, a leg injury that required surgery from a French doctor, mental illness or, according to a head-turning British report, from a cheese addiction.
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