North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has not been seen in public for more than a month, the latest absence in a series of breaks this year and sparking new rumours of possible ill health.
This is the longest Mr Kim has remained out of public view and activities since 2014, a six-week absence that ended with him returning with the addition of a walking stick.
The North Korean leader was last seen in state media reports on 12 October, which detailed his attendance at a missile exhibition in Pyongyang the day before. Since then there have been no media reports involving Mr Kim making a public appearance.
According to the Washington-based watchdog website NK News, satellite imagery has shown a spike in activities around Mr Kim’s east coast beach house and a lakeside mansion in Pyongyang, where he is often reported to go during episodes of illness.
A leisure boat has been seen moving in the waters outside Mr Kim’s Wonsan beach mansion around the end of October.
State media reported that despite the lack of public engagements, Mr Kim continues to work and has written to other heads of state during this period.
The absence comes after a particularly busy period for North Korean military activity, with tests including a claimed first hypersonic missile and a number of ballistic missiles in breach of UN resolutions, alarming neighbours South Korea and Japan.
Unless he is suffering from a very serious illness, it is likely that Mr Kim will be required to make a public appearance next month — he is still expected to make his annual visit to father Kim Jong-il’s mausoleum on his death anniversary of 17 December.
Given the closed-off nature of the hermit kingdom, Mr Kim’s public appearances are watched closely for clues about the state of North Korea’s leadership.
And in 2021 alone, the 37-year-old has taken eight breaks from public engagements spanning at least 14 days.
The only other year in which the leader has taken more absences was 2020, when his lack of involvement in celebrations for North Korea’s 15 April national holiday — the most important of the year, marking founder Kim Il-sung’s birthday — sparked reports of a serious cardiovascular condition.
He returned then after nearly three weeks but wasn’t seen walking, and used a golf cart to conduct a public visit. Observers noted a mark on his arm, suggesting he could have undergone a medical procedure.
Mr Kim became leader of North Korea after the death of his father in 2011 at the age of just 27, at a time when he was known for his love of smoking and alcohol and generally in a poor shape, not least given his family’s history of heart disease.
He appears to have gone on a major health kick this year, appearing at a public event in June with a noticeably tighter chin-line. South Korean spies later told a parliamentary session the leader is believed to have shed around 20kg (44 pounds).