SEOUL (AFP) - There is nothing wrong with the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a senior North Korean official said during an extremely rare visit to the South, after rumours of a debilitating illness or even a coup in Pyongyang.
South Korea's Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl Jae, speaking on a television talk show on Sunday, quoted Mr Kim Yang Gon as saying: "There is nothing wrong with the health of Secretary Kim".
Mr Kim Yang Gon, who heads a ruling party department in charge of South Korea-related affairs, visited the South's western port of Incheon Saturday to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games, along with two other high-ranking officials.
The delegation, led by Pyongyang's second-most powerful man Hwang Pyong So, flew back to Pyongyang late Saturday after a series of meetings with Mr Ryoo and other South Korean officials.
The minister said Mr Hwang had asked him to deliver a "heartfelt greeting" from Mr Kim Jong Un to South Korean President Park Geun Hye, but there was no specific message from the leader.
The North's leader has not been seen in public for a month, fuelling rumours about his health and even triggering reports of a coup.
A rare admission from North Korea nine days ago that he was suffering "discomfort" triggered frenzied speculation and close scrutiny of any mention of the young leader in state media.
Recent state TV footage of Mr Kim had shown him looking overweight and walking with a pronounced limp, which some analysts took to be a symptom of chronic gout.
The rumours multiplied after he failed to attend a meeting of the North's rubber-stamp Parliament last week.
Mr Kim, believed to be 30 or 31, took over the reins of power in North Korea following the death of his father Kim Jong Il in December 2011.
Prior to Mr Kim Yang Gon's comment, the only word from the North had been a media report that Mr Kim Jong Un was in some "discomfort".
Mr Kim Jong Un's failure to attend a rare second session of the North's rubber stamp parliament last month ramped up the speculation that he was seriously ill or injured.
Sources and medical experts cited by the South Korean media suggested he might be suffering from gout, diabetes, or high blood pressure - or all three.
The South's largest selling daily Chosun Ilbo said he had had surgery after fracturing both ankles, while the Yonhap news agency cited diplomatic sources in Washington saying his ankles were blistered and swollen.
Another report said a North Korean medical team had visited Germany and Switzerland for consultations on Mr Kim's health issues.
There were even rumours that Mr Kim might have been ousted by a coup, partly fuelled by reports of an extended travel ban issued to Pyongyang residents.
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 Mr Kim, who has maintained a particularly pervasive media presence.
A key indicator will come on Friday when the North celebrates the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party.
"That is a big event, and even if Kim is in some discomfort, he will make sure he is seen to attend," said Mr Michael Madden, editor of the independent website North Korea Leadership Watch.
"If he doesn't, the alarm bells will really start ringing," Mr Madden said.