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North Korean Leader, Out Of Sight For Weeks

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Where in the world is Kim Jong Un? Well, that's the question lots of North Koreans have been asking about their dear leader, and a lot of people around the world have been asking too. He missed yesterday's annual ceremony to mark the anniversary of the ruling party and has not been seen in more than a month. His absence has made many speculate about his health and his hold on power. The BBC's Steve Evans joins us from Seoul, South Korea. Thanks very much for being with us.

STEVE EVANS: Good to talk to you.

SIMON: How important an event was this that Mr. Kim missed?

EVANS: It was a very important event. It's an event in a mausoleum where his father, previously ruler of North Korea is buried, interred, and so is his grandfather, the founding leader of North Korea. So it was a big deal. Kim Jong Un has not been seen since September 3, when he attended a concert in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, with his wife.

Before that, he'd been seen frequently, but always waddling with a really bad limp. He was clearly in discomfort, and finally the North Korean authorities said he is in physical discomfort. So there's something up. We don't quite know what. The speculation is he's had surgery, he's ill, ranging right through to there's been a coup, and he's lost power or certainly being shunted away from power. That's the speculation.

SIMON: Now, we're talking about somebody who - as my recollection is - he's on television every two minutes. So this must be a tremendous vacuum in the lives of North Koreans.

EVANS: That's right. The print media in North Korea is still putting all these statements thanking the supreme leader in that sort of glorious way they do, praising him for, for example, the pretty good performance of the athletes in the Asian games a week ago. So all that stuff is still coming out. There's no devaluation of him by the state media. But he's not there. Now, having said that, his father disappeared from sight at odd times as well. And sometimes that was seen as being a mark of his strength in that he felt that he was so strong that he didn't need to do all this stuff.

SIMON: Is this a matter for particular distress because, after all, we are talking about a nation that's either a quasi-nuclear power or might be a nuclear power?

EVANS: Sure. It's a nuclear power. What they haven't got is a nuclear device which is small enough to put on a rocket to deliver it to American bases, for example, in Japan or certainly South Korea or even further. It is a nuclear power. It's done the deed. You know, it's tested the things. So this man matters, and he is the man from whom all power stems.

If there were any suggestion of fluidity there, of power being dispersed, of jostling for power, they'd be very worried obviously in Washington, obviously in Seoul, but they'd also be worried in Beijing because that vacuum, they'd be wondering who's going to fill this vacuum. Everybody is concerned about this man because he's such a central figure. He is the man - he's the father of the nation, is the way they put it. He's the man from whom everything else stems.

SIMON: So just to underscore this, there's no indication yet that there's been any cabal to move against him or anything like that.

EVANS: No. The South Korean government thinks - the position is stable, is the way they put it. And the evidence is that there haven't been any untoward movements of the military, for example. You'd expect if power had been shifted from him, that troops would be stationed around radio stations and that kind of thing. That hasn't happened. On top of that, the propaganda coming out from the state media in Pyongyang remains adulatory.

SIMON: The BBC's Steve Evans in Seoul, South Korea. Thanks very much.

EVANS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.