Amid the frenzy of speculation on the whereabouts of Kim Jong Il—is he dead, sick, paralyzed?—it's worth remembering that the North Korean leader has a history of disappearing for weeks or months at a time. Some analysts think the vanishing act is a ploy to draw international attention to the North, as happened when Kim went missing around the time of Pyongyang's missile tests in 1998 and 2006, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 (Kim may have thought he was next) or North Korea's first nuclear test, last October.
Most intelligence analysts think Kim really is sick, apparently the victim of a mild stroke last month. Typically, 60th birthdays are a big deal in North Korea, and Kim missed the celebration of the 60th anniversary of North Korea's founding on Sept. 9. So did the Chinese, who failed to send a high-level delegation, suggesting they may have learned of Kim's illness in advance.
Still, don't put it past Kim to manipulate his return to the public stage. In 2003 he disappeared for 50 days amid global tension over Pyongyang's withdrawal from the nuclear-nonproliferation treaty, and returned just as North Korea agreed to return to talks. The scary stuff that's been going on in his absence—like the test firing of missile engines or the repair of recently decommissioned nuclear facilities—might have some onlookers wish he'd get back on the job.