Speculation over the health and political status of Kim Jong Un intensified Friday, as the North Korean leader remained out of public view on an important anniversary for the secretive, communist nation.
Kim, thought to be about 31 years old, has not been seen in public since he attended a concert September 3, prompting speculation he is suffering from serious health problems, was sidelined in a coup and that it's possible his sister has taken over. The longer he remains out of sight, the more uncertainly grows about the stability of a regime based on hereditary rule.
State media, which normally provide a near-daily account of the activities of the North Korean leader, have offered few clues, except for mentioning in passing that the leader is experiencing "discomfort."
Some analysts say an important hint was offered Friday, the 69th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Korean Worker's Party. For the past two years, Kim has marked the event with a midnight visit to Pyongyang's Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the mausoleum of his father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, Kim Il Sung.
But Kim's name did not appear on a list of dignitaries who made the annual visit to the mausoleum. The list, published by the Korean Central News Agency, did say that a flower basket with Kim's name was left at the site.
South Korea's government on Friday insisted Kim appears to be "ruling normally." Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol also said Seoul has no information that could confirm the state of his health.
Lim said the assessment is based on greetings sent to Seoul officials by a senior North Korean delegation that made a surprise visit to the closing of the Asian games in South Korea last week.
The delegation was led by Hwang Pyong So, believed to be Kim's number two, reinforcing unfounded speculation that Kim may have been politically sidelined. Others said it proved there have been no changes in leadership.
"When the high-level officials visited South Korea, Kim Jong Un sent through them a message to South Korean President Park Geun-hye," Lim said. "Based on this and information from the Korean People’s Army General Political Bureau, and North Korea continued coverage, it appears that Kim Jong Un’s control is stable.”
South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo said earlier this week that intelligence indicated the North Korean leader was staying "at a certain place north of Pyongyang." He offered no other details.
Analyst Kang Chul-hwan, with the North Korea Strategy Center in Seoul says it is not unprecedented for Kim Jong Un to disappear from public view while recuperating from injury.
"Kim Il Sung was out of sight after he had surgery to remove a tumor, and Kim Jong Il was absent after he was injured while riding a horse," he said.
The possibility of a shakeup in North Korea’s leadership he says would not be good for the security of the region, the analyst says, explaining that if North Korea tries to improve inter-Korean relations, leadership must be stable.
In July, the portly Kim was seen awkwardly limping across a stage at a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the death of his grandfather, the country's founding president.
Shortly thereafter, a state media documentary mentioned in passing that the leader, regarded by many North Koreans as an almost divine figure, was experiencing unspecified "discomfort."
South Korean media have reported Kim suffers from gout — which runs in the family — in addition to high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes, all related to obesity and his reported fondness for imported cheese. Earlier this week, VOA reported some analysts believe he may be recovering from some kind of leg surgery.
Kim has gained a large amount of weight since he took over as the country's top leader following the unexpected death of his father in 2011.
VOA News Assistant in Seoul Youmi Kim contributed to this report.