October 14, 2014 / 12:08 AM / 3 years ago

North Korea leader Kim re-appears, with walking stick: state media

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives field guidance at the newly built Wisong Scientists Residential District in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang October 14, 2014.KCNA

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, shown using a cane for support, re-appeared in state media on Tuesday after a lengthy public absence that had fueled speculation over his health and grip on power in the secretive, nuclear-capable country.

Several pictures on the front page of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed Kim smiling and gesturing on a visit to a housing development, although there was no indication which day the event took place. He was surrounded by aides and wearing his signature dark buttoned suit, and appeared to be supporting himself with a black walking stick.

There have been no official reports on the 31-year-old Kim appearing in public since he attended a concert with his wife on Sept. 3. He missed an important political anniversary on Friday as well as a recent session of the country's parliament.

A story in the official KCNA news agency on two public appearances by Kim was dated Tuesday but also did not specify on which day he made the visits. It also did not mention Kim's health or lengthy absence from public view.

Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

The KCNA report, which was typical of its chronicling of Kim's activities, said he "gave field guidance" to the new Wisong Scientists Residential District and visited the newly built Natural Energy Institute of the State Academy of Sciences.

"Our scientists are patriots who are devoting all their lives to building a rich and powerful nation," Kim was quoted as saying.

In still pictures broadcast by state TV, Kim was often shown seated, once with a cigarette in his hand, while his aides stood. He was also shown in a green multi-seat golf cart, along with several members of his entourage.

The reports of Kim's activities may be aimed at dispelling rumors outside the country and to ease any concern inside the North and its military following an exchange of gunfire on Friday between North and South Korea, an analyst said.

"He's the military leader, and there was military action a few days ago," said An Chan-il, who served in the North's army as a junior officer before defecting to the South in 1979, and now heads a private think tank on North Korea in Seoul.

"There was likely concern inside the North's military as well as among the public," which would be eased by Kim's reappearance, he said.

DELICATE STAGE

Relations between the two Koreas, technically in a state of war since the early 1950s, are at a delicate stage.

A high-level delegation from Pyongyang made a surprise visit to the South early this month for the closing of the Asian Games. That led to an agreement to hold further talks by early November, heralding a potential breakthrough in ties that have been frozen since 2010, when the South accused the North of torpedoing a navy ship, which Pyongyang denies.

However, on Friday, North Korea fired shots at balloons carrying leaflets sent towards the North by South Korean activists critical of the North's leadership, and the South fired back.

On Monday, the South warned of a "strong" response if the North provoked a similar incident, although South Korean President Park Geun-hye also reiterated her commitment to engage with the North.

SECRETIVE REGIME

North Korean officials had denied that Kim was in ill-health. Officials in both the United States and South Korea had said recently that there were no indications Kim was in political trouble.

A source with access to the North's leadership told Reuters on Thursday that Kim was in firm control of the country but had hurt his leg taking part in a military drill.

Kim, who has visibly gained weight since coming to power after his father died of a heart attack in 2011, had been seen walking with a limp since an event with officials in July.

Speculation that Kim's unusually long absence from public view may be due to ill health was fueled by a North Korean television report late last month that said he was suffering from "discomfort".

Some North Korea watchers had also suggested that Kim may have been sidelined in a power struggle.

Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, also sometimes disappeared from public view when he led the hereditary dictatorship.

The younger Kim's prolonged absence from state media coverage was not the first. In June 2012, six months after coming to power, state media did not report on or photograph him for 23 days. He reappeared the next month, at a dolphinarium.

Additional reporting by Ju-min Park, Sohee Kim and James Pearson; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan

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