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North Korean leader misses key anniversary as rumors still swirl

Kim Jong-un's absence from public view extended into Friday when he was a no-show at the 69th anniversary of the founding of North Korea's ruling Workers’ Party.

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North Korean military personnel marched in Pyongyang on Friday in celebration of the 69th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party. Kim Jong-un, the country's leader, remained absent throughout the day.

Kyodo News/AP

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un remained out of sight Friday on one of his country's most important political anniversaries, adding fuel to weeks of speculation about his absence.

His nonappearance on the 69th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party marked the young dictator’s 38th day missing from public view. Mr. Kim, who paid his respects to his late father and grandfather on previous anniversaries, has never gone more than three weeks without making an appearance in North Korean media, which usually follow his every move. 

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Observers contend that Kim’s prolonged absence is less remarkable than how it's portrayed in foreign media. They dismiss many reports as breathless conjectures that illustrate the difficulty of obtaining accurate information about one of the world’s most secretive regimes.

Kim went missing for about 20 days in 2012 and again for two weeks this past April, says Michael Madden, who runs the blog North Korean Leadership Watch. Mr. Madden points out that Kim's father, Kim Jong-il, would also disappear for long periods of time during his 17-year reign. 

Madden says anniversary celebrations in North Korea last several days, leaving open the possibility of Kim making an appearance over the weekend.
 
“There is an absence of information, and people are going to fill it however they are going to fill it,” he says. “Some of this obviously comes from government officials who are under pressure to come up with an explanation for the boss. That’s not entirely unheard of.”

Amid rumors of a coup or even an assassination, the most credible explanation for Kim’s absence may be that he is suffering from health problems. An unnamed source with access to the North Korean leadership told Reuters that Kim was recovering from a leg injury, the news outlet reported Thursday.

Andrei Lankov, a longtime North Korea watcher at Kookmin University in Seoul, doubts anything serious has happened to Kim. If the leader had died or been overthrown, Dr. Lankov says, “you would expect serious changes in the composition of the government.”

“Nothing like that has happened,” he says. “We see the same faces, the normal bureaucratic work of government.”

Lankov adds that recent visitors to the capital, Pyongyang, have not reported any cancelations of scheduled events or restrictions on traffic. He takes their reports as signs that things are relatively normal in North Korea despite Kim's absence.  

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News outlets around the world often produce unverified and outlandish reports about North Korea, which has no independent media and prevents most of its citizens from leaving the country. In May, a popular North Korean singer performed in Pyongyang eight months after international media reported that the regime had executed her.

Even the South Korean government struggles to gather reliable information on the inner workings of its rival neighbor. The Unification Ministry, which handles cross-border relations, told local media on Friday that while the North Korean regime appeared stable, it had no information on Kim’s health.

South Korea’s intelligence agencies have a lot of difficulties acquiring accurate information on North Korea,” says Song Dae-sung, the president of Sejong Institute, a national security-focused think tank in Seoul. "All information in North Korean society has been so strongly controlled, so it is very difficult for us to say a definitive duration for Kim’s absence."

Peter Ford contributed to this report from Beijing.