Mystery over N.Korean leader fuels health rumors

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Mystery over N.Korean leader fuels health rumors
In this image taken from video North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, salutes during a military parade marking the 65th anniversary of the country's founding, Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/KRT via AP Video)
In this image taken from video North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, salutes during a military parade marking the 65th anniversary of the country's founding, Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/KRT via AP Video) TV OUT, NORTH KOREA OUT
FILE - In this July 27, 2013 file photo, North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un waves to spectators and participants of a mass military parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea's young leader wasn't in his customary seat as the country convened its rubber-stamp parliament Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014, adding to South Korean media speculation that Kim may be ill. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)
Kim Jong Un flashes his computer skills for gathered North Korean officials. (KCNA/Reuters/Corbis)
ADDS WHERE KIM APPEARED - A man watches a TV news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014, showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un using a cane, reportedly during his first public appearance in five weeks in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim has made his first public appearance in five weeks, smiling broadly and supporting himself with a cane while touring the newly built Wisong Scientists Residential District and another new institute in Pyongyang, state media reported Tuesday, ending an absence that drove a frenzy of global speculation that something was amiss with the country's most powerful person. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
ADDS WHERE KIM APPEARED - A shopper passes by TV monitors displaying a news program at an electronic shop in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014, showing a photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiling, reportedly during his first public appearance in five weeks in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim has made his first public appearance in five weeks, smiling broadly and supporting himself with a cane while touring the newly built Wisong Scientists Residential District and another new institute in Pyongyang, state media reported Tuesday, ending an absence that drove a frenzy of global speculation that something was amiss with the country's most powerful person. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
A photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walking with a stick in Pyongyang, North Korea, is carried on the front page of a South Korea's English newspaper kept at a newspaper distributing station in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday evening, Oct. 14, 2014. Kim, smiling broadly and supporting himself with a walking stick, appeared earlier Tuesday in the North's state media for the first time in nearly six weeks, ending rumors that he was gravely ill, deposed or worse. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
In this image taken from video, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends an event to mark the second anniversary of the death of his father, former leader Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang, North Korea Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/KRT via AP Video)
FILE - In this Thursday, July 25, 2013 file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrives at the cemeteries of fallen fighters of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in Pyongyang, as part of ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended hostilities on the Korean peninsula. North Korea's propaganda machine has long kept alive the myth of a serene, all-powerful ruling dynasty that enjoyed universal love and support at home. In a single stroke last week, that came crashing down. In attempting to justify the execution of his uncle, who was also considered the North's No. 2 official, young leader Kim Jong Un has given the world a rare look behind the scenes of a notoriously hard-to-read government. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)
In this Saturday, July 27, 2013 photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves to war veterans during a mass military parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice in Pyongyang, North Korea. A Malaysian university faced public criticism Thursday for awarding an honorary doctorate in economics to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whose country is among the poorest in the world. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, arrives at the cemeteries of fallen fighters of the Korean People's Army (KPA) on Thursday, July 25, 2013 in Pyongyang, North Korea as part of ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended hostilities on the Korean peninsula. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Portraits of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are seen displayed as North Koreans participate in the "Arirang" mass games on Monday, July 22, 2013 in pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea has revealed a new rendition of the "Arirang" mass games, the song-and-dance ensemble. This year’s performance was timed to debut for the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, and features new scenes focusing on leader Kim Jong Un’s directives. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
In this Feb. 16, 2013 image made from video, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, along with his aunt Kim Kyong Hui, right, attends a statue unveiling ceremony in Pyongyang, North Korea on the anniversary of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's birthday. The aunt of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been named to an ad-hoc state committee, the country's official media reported Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, an indication that the execution of her husband and the country's No. 2, Jang Song Thaek ,has not immediately diminished her influence. (AP Photo/KRT via AP Video, File) TV OUT, NORTH KOREA OUT
In this Feb. 16, 2013 image made from video, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, waves as he attends a statue unveiling ceremony at Mangyongdae Revolutionary School in Pyongyang, North Korea on the anniversary of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's birthday. (AP Photo/KRT via AP Video) TV OUT, NORTH KOREA OUT
In this image taken from video made available on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers an annual New Year's Day message in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim boasted Wednesday that North Korea enters the new year on a surge of strength because of the elimination of "factionalist filth" - a reference to the young leader's once powerful uncle, whose execution last month raised questions about Kim's grip on power. (AP Photo/KRT via AP Video) TV OUT, NORTH KOREA OUT
In this Jan. 28, 2013 image made from video, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers opening remarks at the Fourth Meeting of Secretaries of Cells of the Workers' Party of Korea, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim convened top security and foreign affairs officials and ordered them to take "substantial and high-profile important state measures," state media said Sunday, fueling speculation that he plans to push forward with a threat to explode a nuclear device in defiance of the United Nations. (AP Photo/KRT via AP Video) NORTH KOREA OUT, TV OUT
In this Friday, Dec. 21, 2012 image made from video, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks at a banquet for rocket scientists in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim has called for the development of more powerful rockets after last week's successful launch of a satellite into space. (AP Photo/KRT via AP Video) NORTH KOREA OUT
South Korean protesters hold the pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a rally denouncing North Korea's rocket launch in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012. North Korea successfully fired a long-range rocket on Wednesday, defying international warnings as the regime of Kim Jong Un took a giant step forward in its quest to develop the technology to deliver a nuclear warhead. The letters read "Out, Pro-North Korea politic." (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
A cutout of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is displayed during a protest denouncing North Korea for trying to intervene in the upcoming South Korean presidential election scheduled for Dec. 20, in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Oct. 12, 2012. The cutout reads "Novice." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
In this video image taken from KRT, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un holds up his credential at the Supreme People's Assembly's second meeting of the year, in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012. North Korea's parliament convened Tuesday for the second time in six months, passing a law that adds one year of compulsory education for children in the socialist nation, the first publicly-announced policy change under leader Kim. (AP Photo/KRT via AP video) NORTH KOREA OUT
In this Wednesday, July 25, 2012 photo released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and distributed in Tokyo by the Korea News Service Thursday, July 26, 2012, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju, right, waves to the crowd as they inspect the Rungna People's Pleasure Ground in Pyongyang. (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service) JAPAN OUT UNTIL 14 DAYS AFTER THE DAY OF TRANSMISSION
In this image released by by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and distributed in Tokyo by the Korea News Service on Wednesday July 25, 2012 North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, centre, Ri Sol Ju, centre left. visit the Rungna People's Pleasure Ground, which is nearing completion, in this undated picture North Korea's new, young leader Kim Jong Un is married, state TV reported Wednesday for the first time in a brief and otherwise routine announcement that ends weeks of speculation about a beautiful woman who has accompanied him to recent public events. Kim toured an amusement park with his "wife, comrade Ri Sol Ju" on Tuesday, while a crowd cheered for the leader, the news anchor said without giving any more details about Ri, including how long they had been married. (AP Photo/KCNA KNS) JAPAN OUT UNTIL 14 DAYS AFTER THE DAY OF TRANSMISSION
North Korea's new commander in chief, Kim Jong Un is displayed on a giant screen during a concert on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean army in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, April 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
An effigy of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is burned by anti-North Korea protesters during a rally denouncing the North's recent announcement in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, April 24, 2012. North Korea sharply escalated the rhetoric against its southern rival, claiming it will soon conduct "special actions" that would reduce South Korea's conservative government to ashes within minutes. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves from a balcony at the end of a mass military parade in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square to celebrate 100 years since the birth of his grandfather, and North Korean founder, Kim Il Sung on Sunday, April 15, 2012. Kim delivered his first public televised speech Sunday, just two days after a failed rocket launch, portraying himself as a strong military chief unafraid of foreign powers during festivities meant to glorify his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
In this April 13, 2012 image made Saturday, April 14, 2012, from KRT video, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un claps hands during the meeting of the Supreme People's Assembly in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been installed as the new head of the powerful National Defence Commission in the meeting Friday. (AP Photo/KRT via AP video) NORTH KOREA OUT, TV OUT
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrives for the unveiling ceremony for statues of late leaders Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung on Munsudae hill in Pyongyang, North Korea, Friday, April 13, 2012. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
In this undated photo released by the Korean Central News Agency and distributed in Tokyo by the Korea News Service on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un accompanied by Korean People's Army soldiers visits a KPA unit at an undisclosed location in North Korea. (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service) JAPAN OUT UNTIL 14 DAYS AFTER THE DAY OF TRANSMISSION
In this undated photo released by the Korean Central News Agency and distributed in Tokyo by the Korea News Service Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves during his visit to the Korean People's Army (KPA) Unit 3870 at an undisclosed location in North Korea. (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service) JAPAN OUT UNTIL 14 DAYS AFTER THE DAY OF TRANSMISSION
In this image made from KRT television, Kim Jong Un, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's youngest known son and successor, wipes his eyes with handkerchief as he views his father's body displayed in a glass coffin, not in photo, at Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang, North Korea Friday, Dec. 23, 2011. Kim Jong Un, hailed as the "great successor" in state media, visited his father's coffin again Friday. (AP Photo/KRT via APTN) TV OUT, NORTH KOREA OUT
An effigy of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is displayed during a rally to mark the the third anniversary of North Korea’s artillery attack on the Yeonpyeong island, in Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013. Four people, including two marines and two civilians, were killed by North Korea's attack. The banner reads "Hang Kim Jong Un, Strike Pyongyang and Get rid of pro-North ." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - DECEMBER 17: South Korean conservative protesters burn an effigy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un during an anti-North Korea protest marking the second anniversary of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death on December 17, 2013 in Seoul, South Korea. The tension is heightened in South Korea since the report that North Korea has executed Jang Song-Thaek, Kim Jong Un's uncle on December 13, 2013. On December 17, 2013 North Korea also commemorates two years since the death of former leader Kim Jong-il. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - DECEMBER 17: South Korean conservative protesters shout slogans during an anti-North Korea protest marking the second anniversary of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death on December 17, 2013 in Seoul, South Korea. The tension is heightened in South Korea since the report that North Korea has executed Jang Song-Thaek, Kim Jong Un's uncle on December 13, 2013. On December 17, 2013 North Korea also commemorates two years since the death of former leader Kim Jong-il. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- North Korea's authoritarian leader makes no public appearances for three weeks, skipping a high-profile event he usually attends. An official documentary shows him limping and overweight and mentions his "discomfort." What follows is a smorgasbord of media speculation about what's eating Kim Jong Un.

Maybe it's gout, unidentified sources tell South Korean reporters, or diabetes, or high blood pressure. A thinly sourced British report says the Swiss-educated dictator has been laid low by a massive cheese addiction. A headline in Seoul offers up the possibility of a common South Korean obsession: fried chicken and beer.

So what's going on? Maybe not much.

As is always the case, much more than what's seen publicly is happening behind the well-guarded scenes with North Korea's No. 1. But just the fact that Pyongyang acknowledges that Kim is ailing suggests that he may not be suffering from anything particularly serious. The hugely micromanaged state media, for instance, were tight-lipped when Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, suffered major health problems late in his rule.

The intense outside fascination with even scraps of information creates a scramble in South Korea and the West to play up any hint of change or turmoil in a country notorious for resisting outside prodding and for releasing information only as it sees fit.

North Korea is unique: a poor, largely cloistered, fiercely proud, nominally Stalinist country led from its founding in 1948 by a family that has passed down power through three generations. It's also in possession of a handful of crude nuclear bombs and working toward producing nuclear-armed missiles that could target the mainland United States.

Because of this, there's powerful curiosity about what would happen should Kim Jong Un be incapacitated. Kim is believed to have been groomed for the leadership by Kim Jong Il after the elder man suffered a stroke in 2008. Kim Jong Un, who is thought to be 31, reportedly has at least one young daughter but no adult heirs.

The recent health speculation started when Kim, always a large man, began showing up in pictures and video noticeably heavier, and with a distinct limp. For more than three weeks, he hasn't been seen performing his customary public duties in state media coverage, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry, which monitors the North.

And then, on Thursday, his usual seat was empty at a session of the country's rubber stamp parliament. Although Kim Jong Il occasionally missed the meetings, it was the first no-show for Kim Jong Un since he took over after his father's death in late 2011, Seoul officials said.

The same day as the parliamentary meeting, the North aired a documentary with footage from August that showed a limping Kim inspecting a tile factory. "Our marshal continues to light the path for the people like a flame despite his discomfort," a narrator said.

The documentary, which was shown again Monday, marked the first and only time state media have made a direct comment on Kim's health since he took power, the Unification Ministry said.

South Korean officials told reporters Monday they don't think anything serious is happening, but that hasn't stopped the rumors.

North Korea's propaganda specialists carefully construct their media images, especially those of Kim, with an eye on the domestic elite and, to a lesser extent, on foreign, mostly South Korean, audiences.

The recent images of Kim limping and the documentary are "an attempt to quell rumors within the North Korean public and show confidence that Kim's health problems are trivial," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University in Seoul.

Kim Jong Il was reportedly a very sick man in the last years of his life, but state media was silent about the reported 2008 stroke.

Kim Jong Un is usually a near-constant one-man show in state media, but he has kept a low profile before. In 2012, he wasn't seen publicly for about three weeks, South Korean officials say.

Senior North Korean officials do vanish on occasion - sometimes for good.

After surviving several earlier purges, Kim's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was publicly shamed and then executed on treason charges in December 2013. In 2012, North Korea purged its army chief, which also caused wild speculation in Seoul, including a report from a South Korean newspaper, citing "unconfirmed intelligence reports," that Ri Yong Ho may have been wounded or killed in a blaze of gunfire when soldiers loyal to him resisted an armed attempt to detain him. Ri's fate is still unknown.

Whatever's going on, avid North Korea watchers will get another chance for a carefully staged look on Oct. 10, when the North stages a celebration of the founding anniversary for the ruling Workers' Party.

Where's Kim Jong-Un? North Korea Acknowledges Health Issue


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