SEOUL (AFP, REUTERS) - North Korea's ruling party celebrated its 69th anniversary on Friday with no early sign that "missing" leader Kim Jong Un might finally resurface after more than a month out of the public eye.
Kim's unexplained absence has fed a cycle of rumour and wild speculation that only a country as reclusive and impenetrable as North Korea could sustain. Competing theories range widely from an extended rest period to a leadership coup, via a long list of possible illnesses and ailments including broken ankles, gout and diabetes.
Reuters, quoting a source with access to the North’s leadership, said on Thursday that Kim had 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 told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
“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,” the source said.
Should he fail to put in any appearance on Friday, the rumour mill is likely to shift up several gears. North Korea has more than its fair share of political anniversaries, but the Korean Workers' Party anniversary is one of the bigger ones, and Kim would be expected to show up.
For the past two years, he has marked the occasion with a post-midnight visit - along with other top leaders - to the mausoleum in Pyongyang that houses the bodies of his father Kim Jong-Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung.
The North's official KCNA news agency usually reports the event early in the morning, but as of 9.00 am (0001 GMT), there was no mention of any visit.
"My own feeling is that there has been a health problem, but not a particularly serious one," said Chung Young Chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Sogang University in Seoul.
"A no-show on Friday would certainly force us to consider the possibility that it's more serious than we thought," Chung said.
Mixed messages on health
What little light North Korea has deemed necessary to shed on the situation has only added to the confusion. State media alluded at one point to the leader's "discomfort", but one member of a top-level North delegation that visited South Korea last week insisted that Kim had no health problem at all.
The uncertainty means that every move or comment by North Korea is now seen through the unreliable prism of what it might say about Kim's situation.
Some saw the surprise visit by the high-ranking delegation as a message that all was fine and normal in Pyongyang. Others saw the presence of Kim's de-facto number two in the delegation as further evidence that the leader may have been sidelined or pushed out altogether.
It is by no means unprecedented for a North Korean leader to drop out of the public eye for a while. But it is more noticeable with Kim, who has maintained a particularly pervasive media presence since coming to power after the death of his father Kim Jong Il in 2011.
"He certainly doesn't want to be seen while he is sick and looking weak," said Bruce Bennett, a senior defence analyst with the RAND corporation. "Looking weak is not good for a North Korean leader who is trying to maintain control," Bennett said.
Although he has not been seen since he attended a musical concert with his wife on Sept 3, Kim's name has not disappeared from the state media. And while he did not join other senior leaders at the unveiling last week of two new giant statues of his father and grandfather Kim Il Sung, a floral tribute bearing Kim Jong Un's name was prominently displayed.
The South Korean government has largely avoided playing the guessing-game. In a meeting Tuesday with legislators, Defence Minister Han Min-Koo reportedly cited intelligence sources saying Kim was staying at a "certain place north of Pyongyang" but offered no other details.