Has Anyone Seen Kim Jong Un?

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, visits the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang to pay tribute to founding President Kim Il Sung and former leader Kim Jong Il on July 27, 2014. KCNA/Reuters

When young Kim Jong Un emerged in late 2011 to assume leadership of North Korea—after his father, Kim Jong Il died—the outside world knew little about him (as befitting a new leader of the country known as the Hermit Kingdom.) He had spent a few years of his boyhood at a boarding school in Switzerland and was said to be a fan of NBA basketball—Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in particular. (He has since hosted a member of that team, the pierced up Dennis Rodman, in Pyongyang for exhibition games.)

What was entirely unclear was whether he could actually be in charge of what is arguably the world's most despotic regime, or whether he would be a frontman—perhaps for the military, or perhaps for his powerful uncle, a man named Jang Song Taek. Those concerns were in a manner of speaking laid to rest when Kim had Jang assassinated—according to rumors, he had his corpse fed to a pack of attack dogs.

Now, again, the rumor mill out of Pyongyang stirs. And the question of the day is, Where's Waldo? Young Kim, now 31, hasn't been seen in public in nearly a month. This, despite the recent convening of an important parliamentary session of the country's ruling party—the Korean Worker's party (WPK)—which Kim normally would attend.

In his absence there has also been a scrap at sea off the peninsula's west coast with South Korea: North Korean naval vessels allegedly crossed the so called Northern Limit Line, which sets the maritime border between the two countries and drew gunfire from South Korean ships. The North returned fire and then retreated. And during his period of absence, evidence has emerged of a new chilliness in relations with China, ostensibly Pyongyang's only ally.

The most widespread rumor in both South Korea and China is that Kim is recovering from surgery. He is said to have gout, a painful joint ailment that often afflicts the overweight. That would include Kim, who has put on considerable poundage since succeeding his father, ostensibly to look more like his grandfather, WPK founder Kim Il Sung (to whom Jong Un does bear a striking resemblance.) Kim is now said to weigh nearly 280 pounds, which at 5 feet 10 inches tall makes him more suitable to play nose tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers than power forward for his beloved Chicago Bulls.

In North Korea, the supreme leader is known as suryong—a sort of demigod who isn't supposed to come down with earthly ailments like gout. To be hobbling around on crutches for several weeks doesn't do wonders for the old image of omnipotence. Ergo, Kim's a short-term shut in until he recovers.

The more conspiratorial scenario is that there has been a coup in Pyongyang and Kim Jong Un is no longer in charge. He has been supplanted, according to this rumor, by men who control one of the most shadowy and most powerful organizations in the country, the so called "organization and guidance department" (OGD). The OGD controls all the appointments of all the senior positions throughout the ruling party, and as such, says Jang Jin Sung, a prominent North Korean defector, "it is the entity that controls everything. This is where all roads end, all chains of command and all power structures go."

The former No 2 official in the OGD, Hwang Pyong So, is now said to be a top military adviser to Jong Un. Hwang showed up in Incheon, South Korea last week to attend the closing ceremonies of the Asia games—the senior most official from North Korea ever to visit the South. Some analysts believe that Hwang may now be running the country.

Other rumors say that a man named Choe Ryong Hae—who appears virtually unknown outside of the North—now runs the OGD, and that he is now the head of a "third power" that has taken over. According to this scenario, Beijing—Pyongyang's ultimate patron—was infuriated when Jong Un had Jang Song Taek (who himself had run once been the deputy director of OGD) killed. China, as this version of the story goes, counted on Jang as a steady hand and senior party officials in Beijing pushed leaders in Pyongyang to move Jong Un aside.

It is very possible that all this is overheated speculation. Hwang, who visited South Korea last week for the Asian Games, told his hosts that there was nothing awry in the North. Analysts also note that the WPK has gone ahead with meetings with Japan in Shenyang, China—meetings encouraged by Beijing—in order to try to resolve the issue of Japanese citizens who had been kidnapped over the years by the North. To some it seems unlikely that these meetings would have proceeded if the North were engulfed in a leadership crisis.

But until the overweight demigod makes a public appearance, the rumors that something's up in the world's most-closed country will intensify.