SEOUL: For the first time in three years, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un didn't appear at a celebration of the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party on Friday, further increasing speculation that something is amiss with the authoritarian leader who hasn't been seen publicly in more than a month.
North Korea's propaganda machine conveyed the no-show to the world in its typical murky and indirect fashion — a state media dispatch that excluded Kim's name from a list of senior government, military and party officials who paid their respects at an event marking the party's 69th anniversary.
Indications that Kim remains firmly in power were evident, however. His name appeared on a flower basket placed before statues of his father and grandfather, both of whom also ruled North Korea, and an earlier dispatch said the might of the party "is growing stronger under the seasoned guidance of Marshal Kim Jong Un."
State media haven't shown Kim, who is thought to be 31, performing his customary public duties since he attended a concert Sept. 3. He had been walking with a limp and was more overweight than usual in images that were broadcast before that. An official documentary from late last month described him as dealing with "discomfort," which led to international speculation that he may be ill.
A group of South Korean activists, meanwhile, marked Friday's anniversary by releasing anti-North Korean propaganda balloons across the border. North Korea responded later with machine-gun fire, and several of the bullets fell south of the border near a military base and a residential area, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said.
He said South Korea then fired 40 rounds from machine guns. North Korea then opened fire with rifles, which South Korean soldiers responded to in kind, he said. There were no reports of damage or injuries, but the exchange of fire was a reminder of the bitter rivals' animosity despite recent glimmers of trust building.
Much of what happens in North Korea's inner circles is hidden from the eyes of outsiders and even average North Koreans. This leaves media in South Korea and elsewhere to speculate, sometimes wildly, about what's really happening. Some reports say Kim could have gout, diabetes or other ailments, with much of the speculation based on that single reference in the documentary and unidentified sources speaking to South Korean media.
South Korean officials are playing down the speculation.
In Seoul, Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong Cheol told reporters Friday that Kim appears to be in charge of key affairs. Lim noted that a high-level North Korean delegation conveyed his greetings to South Korean President Park Geun-hye during a surprise visit to South Korea last week that had raised hopes for better ties between the countries. Lim said North Korea's state media has continuously reported about Kim's leadership.
North Korea has said nothing publicly about Kim's absence. It is not his first break from the media spotlight — he wasn't seen publicly for about three weeks in 2012, South Korean officials say — and a senior North Korean official on last week's visit to the South told a South Korean official that Kim was fine.
Without the extended absence, Kim's nonattendance Friday would not be all that unusual. Such anniversaries generally have more weight in landmark years. A high-profile celebration, for example, is expected for next year's 70th anniversary of the ruling party.
Because North Korea has publicly acknowledging Kim's "discomfort," many analysts believe that he's unlikely to be suffering from anything particularly serious. When his father, Kim Jong Il, suffered major health problems late in his life, state media said nothing. Kim Jong Il was believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008, and his death on Dec. 17, 2011, was not announced for two days.
But each day the younger Kim is absent only adds to the speculation. He missed a meeting of parliament late last month and a gathering this week marking his late father's election as ruling party head. Kim also was not seen in North Korean media reports greeting the athletes who returned from the Asian Games in the South, although they received a lavish reception and heavy media coverage.