WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A surprise visit by a senior North Korea delegation to South Korea and the disappearance from public view of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for the past month have triggered speculation about Kim’s health and the stability of his government.
But U.S. analysts say both can just as easily be interpreted as diplomatic tactics by Pyongyang, aimed at dividing and weakening international pressure over its nuclear weapons program and human rights record as well as propaganda for domestic consumption.
North Korean officials have denied that Kim’s public absence since September 3 is health-related and a U.S. official following North Korea said there were no indications he was seriously ill or in political trouble.
While minor health problems could not be ruled out, Washington believed a purge last year that resulted in Kim having his uncle and former top advisor executed had cemented him in power, said the official, who asked not to be identified.
“There’s no sign that something big is going on,” the official said, adding that Kim’s absence from some high-level meetings was not unusual as his predecessors, father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung, did not always attend either.
North and South Korea agreed on Saturday to resume reconciliation talks after North Korea sent its most senior delegation ever to its neighbor at just 24 hours’ notice.
The delegation, formally sent to attend the closing ceremony of the Asian Games, comprised close aides to Kim.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been pushing for resumption of high-level dialogue stalled since February, and the North Koreans agreed that senior officials would meet sometime between late October and early November.
It was a striking change in tone after months of near daily-invective from North Korean media against South Korea and Park.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States was “in close consultation with the government of (South) Korea as the visit was happening.” Washington has declined to make clear whether it knew in advance of a planned visit.
Alexandre Mansourov, a North Korea specialist at Johns Hopkins University, said North Korea may have been thrusting itself into the Asian Games spotlight for domestic propaganda.
He said it could also have been an attempt to divide and weaken international resolve to pressure North Korea to scrap its nuclear arms program and improve its rights record.
Pyongyang’s move comes just weeks before a resolution criticizing North Korea over its rights record is due to come up for debate at the United Nations.
The yearly ritual this time has been given extra weight by a report by U.N. investigators denouncing North Korea’s system of labor camps. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has called on North Korea to close the camps, saying their existence and systematic torture and executions brought shame on the country.
Joel Wit, who runs the North Korea monitoring project, 38 North, said that if North-South talks did move forward, it could leave Washington increasingly isolated since it has imposed preconditions on a resumption of international talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.
North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva said this month his country was willing to resume the international talks but Washington said Pyongyang must first take steps toward denuclearization and refrain from provocative acts.
Mansourov said he expected Kim Jong Un to appear in public soon, and a key date would be Friday, Oct. 10, a holiday for the founding of North Korea’s communist party, which leaders normally mark with public appearances.
Reporting by David Brunnstrom, addtional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Arshad Mohammed and Gunna Dickson