herald

Sunday 20 August 2017

WHERE'S kim?

missing: Kim Jong-un hasn't been seen for a month - is he injured or the victim of a coup?

Kim Jong-un has apparently gone AWOL. His movements unknown, the reason for his sudden invisibility mysterious. Nobody in Pyongyang is saying anything. But then nobody in Pyongyang ever says very much.

Still, Kim has been hard to find since early September and the North Korean media have not posted any pictures of him inspecting a jam factory or shouting into a field telephone at some remote artillery post.

Yesterday a source with access to the secretive North's leadership said Kim Jong-Un is still in firm control of his government but has hurt his leg.

North Korea's state media, which usually chronicles Kim's whereabouts in great detail, has not made any mention of his activities since he attended a concert with his wife on September 3.

The source said that Kim hurt his leg while inspecting military exercises.

"He ordered all the generals to take part in drills and he took part too. They were crawling and running and rolling around, and he pulled a tendon," the source said.

"He injured his ankle and knee around late August or early September while drilling because he is overweight. He limped around in the beginning but the injury worsened."

Kim, who has rapidly gained weight since coming to power after his father died of a heart attack in 2011, had been seen walking with a limp since an event with key officials in July, which would imply he may have aggravated an earlier injury.

Kim needs about 100 days to recuperate, said the source, whose information could not be independently verified.

However, North Korean officials have denied that Kim's public absence since early September is health-related and a US official following North Korea said this week there were no indications he was seriously ill or in political trouble.

It remains unclear why a leg injury would keep Kim out of the public eye for so long, although this is not the first time he has been missing from public view.

In June 2012, six months after coming to power, state media failed to report on or photograph him for 23 days. He re-surfaced the next month at a dolphinarium.

Some Pyongyang watchers, however, suggest that Kim may have been sidelined in a power struggle, a scenario they say was reinforced by the unexpected visit on Saturday of a high-level delegation to the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea.

That delegation was led by Hwang Pyong So, a top military aide to Kim who has had an unprecedented rise to the top rungs of North Korea's leadership in the space of a few years.

He is the most senior official from the North to have ever come to the South, and opinion is divided on whether this could be a sign of a possible coup in Pyongyang.

SECRETIVE

Hwang, who is 64 or 65, was in the Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD), a powerful and secretive body that finalises appointments within North Korea's leadership, and rose to be its second-in-command, according to North Korea experts and South Korea's Unification Ministry. At the time, the OGD was headed by Kim Jong Il, the father of the current leader.

When Kim Jong Un took power after his father's death in 2011, Hwang was among his coterie of advisers. As others fell by the wayside, Hwang became chief of the General Political Bureau of the army, a powerful position that mobilises the military for the leader, earlier this year.

Jang Jin-sung, a North Korean defector who previously worked at a propaganda unit in the North's ruling party, said it was unusual for an OGD veteran to rise to such a prominent position.

"These are the people who come to the forefront only when there is a purge or an execution," said Jang.

hnews@herald.ie

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