The South Korean news agency Yonhap on Wednesday reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been out of the public eye for more than a week as his younger sister “has been leading Pyongyang's hard-line handling of relations” with Seoul.
According to Yonhap, Kim was last seen on 7 June, when he reportedly presided over a session of North Korea’s ruling Workers' Party.
During the meeting, the DPRK leader “called for an improvement of the country's chemical sector for fertiliser production and discussed the livelihoods of Pyongyang citizens”, making no mention of “anything about inter-Korean affairs”.
Yonhap’s report comes amid increasing tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul which escalated last week after the North cut all communication ties with Seoul amid an ongoing campaign by South-based defectors flying anti-Pyongyang leaflets on balloons across the border.
The DPRK leader’s sister Kim Yo-jong, for her part, dubbed South Korea “the enemy", also threatening to destroy a "useless" liaison office in the border town of Kaesong, a development that finally took place on Tuesday.
The office’s explosion prompted South Korean Deputy National Security Adviser Kim You-geun to warn that “the North is entirely responsible for all the consequences this [blast] might cause”.
As far as Kim Jong-un is concerned, the New York Post reported in mid-May that the North Korean leader had not appeared in public since images of his visit to a new fertiliser plant in the city of Sunchon were released by North Korean state media earlier that month.
This followed weeks of speculation on Kim’s health or even death that came after he skipped public appearance at a number of important events in North Korea in April, including the ceremony marking the birthday of his late grandfather and the country's founder, Kim Il-sung.
Seoul said at the time that there was no evidence to confirm media reports about the DPRK leader undergoing heart surgery, and that Kim is "alive and well".
Adding to the speculation was former American pro-basketball player Dennis Rodman, who grabbed the headlines a few years ago by striking sort of friendship with Kim Jong-un.
“All I'm going to say is, Piers, I do have communication with North Korea but I'm going to say this though: If you see his [Kim’s] sister on TV, running the country, you know something is wrong”, Rodman said during an interview with UK journalist and “Good Morning Britain” presenter Piers Morgan in late May.