Kim Jong Un missed a session of North Korea’s parliament for the first time since coming to power almost three years ago, extending his recent absence from public view dating back to Sept. 3.
North Korean state television footage of yesterday’s meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly, this year’s second, showed no sign of Kim. The official Korean Central News Agency’s account of the meeting also didn’t include the country’s leader, who hasn’t been seen in public since he attended a concert more than three weeks ago with his wife Ri Sol Ju.
Footage in July and earlier this month showed the country’s leader walking with a limp, and Kim appeared to have gained weight, prompting speculation in the South Korean media that he may be unwell. South Korea’s government said this week it would monitor yesterday’s parliament for signs of Kim, while downplaying a potential link to health issues.
“Recent photos indicate Kim has noticeably become fatter and smoked more cigarettes, and if he has, that could have complicated his health problems, including the limping,” Koh Yu Hwan, a professor of North Korea studies at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said by phone. “Kim not attending the parliamentary session isn’t unusual since leaders have often skipped extra sessions, but health concerns might have added to his decision to skip it this time.”
Changes at top
The South Korean government wasn’t sure why Kim has been out of the public eye for so long, Unification Ministry spokeswoman Park Soo Jin said today at a briefing in Seoul.
South Korea is “monitoring with interest while keeping in mind various possibilities, including the speculation of health problems,” she said.
Kim’s absence didn’t prevent the assembly from approving personnel changes at the top of his regime. Hwang Pyong So, who replaced Choe Ryong Hae as the military’s top political officer in April, replaced Choe as a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, KCNA said. Choe is still a Workers’ Party of Korea secretary, according to a KCNA report on Sept. 23.
“You don’t want to be seen as too powerful a No. 2 in North Korea, which might be why Choe Ryong Hae has either chosen or been reshuffled to give way to Hwang Pyong So,” Koh said. “Now it’s mostly Choe handling party affairs while Hwang takes on the military matters.”
Yesterday’s moves also included Ri Pyong Chol and Hyon Yong Chol, a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and current defense minister, who were appointed to the defense commission. Jang Jong Nam, replaced by Hyon as defense minister in June, was removed from the defense commission “due to his transfer to another post,” KCNA said.
Before Hwang, Choe was considered Kim’s top deputy after the leader purged his uncle Jang Song Thaek in December last year. Kim, believed to be in his early 30s, has been steadily replacing top officials since his father Kim Jong Il, who died of a heart attack at the age of 69 in December 2011. The elder Kim disappeared from public view for nearly two months in 2008, raising speculation that he had suffered a stroke.
Kim Jong Un became the county’s supreme leader in July 2012.
Should Kim be seriously ill or become incapacitated, it would have serious consequences for the regime, according to Dongguk University’s Koh.
“Should Kim be suddenly incapacitated, a power struggle is very likely because no preparations have been made for anyone to inherit his position,” he said.