Where’s Kim Jong-un? Ill, deposed, overthrown - or just plain bored? What has really happened to North Korea's truculent young dictator?

North Korea’s young dictator has not been seen in public for 37 days, sparking rumours about his whereabouts which include – given the significant events that have occurred in the meantime – his possible overthrow

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He is not feeling well. He is receiving medical treatment at the family’s villa north of Pyongyang. He has been overthrown, the Kim family dynasty is at an end.

His younger sister is running the show. He is suffering from gout. His broken ankles, suffered while ill-advisedly throwing himself into military training, have yet to recover. He is merely bored.

You pay your money and you take your pick, but whichever explanation you prefer, it is beyond doubt that there was a gaping, Kim Jong-un-sized hole at the celebration of the 69th anniversary of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s ruling Workers Party yesterday. The Dear Leader, Marshal of the DPRK, First Chairman of the National Defence Commission, Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, etc, etc, was last seen in public when he attended a concert with his wife Ri Sol-ju on 3 September. He has been out of sight for 37 days. Like his father, Kim Jong-il, he has been known to duck out of view in the past, on one occasion for 24 days. But the past five weeks have not been uneventful ones.


His top military aide, Vice-Marshal Hwang Pyong-so, 65, attended the finale of the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. Appearing at short notice, he also met South Korean President Park Geun-hye, agreeing to resume high-level bilateral talks.

Back in Pyongyang, the Supreme People’s Assembly had its annual meeting. Mr Kim’s portly presence has graced the last three sessions of the rubber-stamp parliament, but this time he was  missing. Finally, and perhaps most ominously, there was his absence from yesterday’s birthday celebration of the Workers Party. Last year, by contrast, he dominated the proceedings. Entering with Ms Ri, he was greeted by a standing ovation and wave after wave of roaring cheers. The first couple were seated at a table of their own in front of massed military hats while the Moranbong Band, fronted by seven attractive young women attired like flight attendants but with military braid across their chests, sang patriotic songs for more than an hour. A giant photograph of Mr Kim’s beaming face loomed on the screen at the back as the show ended. He was rewarded with another thunderous ovation on his exit.

Mr Kim has exerted global fascination since his emergence in 2011, on the death of his father. He is the third Kim to rule the secretive state, and a worthy successor to his oddball father, renowned for his addiction to Hollywood movies and fine French cuisine.

Kim Jong-un was notably absent from the ceremony to mark the 69th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang yesterday (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

The internet is awash with Kim Jong-un trivia: his love of Emmental cheese, for example, acquired while a schoolboy in Switzerland, which is said to account for his ballooning size. In his childhood, we are told, he developed a morbid loathing of barber shops, which is why he cuts his own hair. He is obsessed with American basketball and is a fanatical supporter of the LA Lakers, which explains his friendship with their former star, Dennis Rodman.

Nobody knows for sure how old Kim is: was he born in 1982, 1983 or 1984? The regime has not deigned to clarify the point. Whatever his precise age, he is still very young to exercise absolute power, especially in a state wedded to Confucian values, in which it is the duty of youth to pay homage and respect to age.

Mr Kim has demonstrated abundant respect towards his father and grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the dynasty, by his regular presence at events honouring them. If one South Korean source is correct, he may even have taken filial piety to a new extreme, undergoing plastic surgery to enhance his resemblance to his grandfather.

But the North’s propaganda videos cannot conceal the gaping age difference between the plump young dictator and the big-hatted generals and party functionaries who accompany him on his frequent visits to farms, factories and military units. According to the party’s theology, Kim is the source of all wisdom, which is why these grizzled sidekicks are shown furiously scribbling his advice during these visits.

Kim Jong-un with his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong (left), on one of the leader’s staged public appearances (EPA/KCNA)

A more illuminating insight into Kim’s actual relationship to the old men hemming him in came last December, when he ordered the execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek, who had reportedly built up a power base of his own from which he was attempting to control Mr Kim. The dictator’s retribution extended to his powerful uncle’s entire family, not excluding young children and grandchildren.

The demise of Mr Jang was a stark warning to other possible rivals that they would be unwise to offer competition to Mr Kim unless they were in a position to control him. This is what makes the meeting of Mr Hwang with the South’s President Park last week, and his agreement to start new talks, so remarkable. The background of tension between the sibling states was underlined yesterday when  they traded machine-gun fire, following the release in the South of a balloon laden with anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets.

Mr Hwang’s power base is the Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD), a secretive state agency that reported directly to Mr Kim and was fiercely opposed to Uncle Jang and his clan.

Mr Hwang’s olive branch to Seoul is starkly at odds with the hysterical and bellicose trajectory pursued by Mr Kim in his relations with the outside world. A diplomatic U-turn on this scale, it is argued, would need to be executed by the boss – unless the boss is no longer the boss. Though purely circumstantial, this is the best evidence to date that Kim Jong-un has indeed been marginalised.

The internet is awash with Kim Jong-un trivia from his love of cheese to his loathing of barbers (AFP PHOTO /KCNA via KNS)

But within North Korea the subject is off limits. The only explanation offered by official North Korean media for the Dear Leader’s long absence is that he was “suffering some discomfort”.

New Focus International, a website dedicated to North Korean affairs, this week published a conversation about Mr Kim’s absence with a person living in the town of Hyesan. “Has he really been gone a month?” the unnamed source asked. “None of us are interested in where Kim Jong-un is or isn’t. On North Korean TV, video clips showing Kim Jong-un conducting ‘on-site guidance’ are shown on a daily basis.

“In residential unit meetings and in the marketplace there have been rumours that ‘the Marshal is feeling poorly.’ But... this is actually the first I’ve heard that Kim Jong-un hasn’t been seen for a month.”

The conversation was ended abruptly because, the website reported, “vehicles from the Ministry of State Security were patrolling at night to detect communication signals”.