Reclusive North Korea's state media has reported that the country's young leader Kim Jong Un has made his first public appearance in nearly six weeks following speculations that he was facing serious health or political problems.
The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a dispatch on Tuesday local time that Kim had visited a residential district and a science academy since last appearing in public at a Sept. 3 music concert with his wife in the capital Pyongyang.
The brief dispatch did not say when Kim made the "field guidance" tour or why he had been absent from the public eye.
According to Agence France-Presse, KCNA usually reports such events the day after.
The official Rodong Sinmun newspaper, meanwhile, carried multiple photos of Kim standing with the apparent aid of a walking stick, following speculations he might be suffering from a broken ankle, gout, or diabetes.
Kim, believed to be 31 years old and a heavy smoker, was seen smiling and gesturing in the photos showing him with aides at a newly completed residential complex, wearing his signature dark buttoned suit and appearing to be supporting himself with a black walking stick, Reuters news agency reported.
The KCNA report 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.
Rumors about Kim, who leads the world's only communist dynasty, had intensified after he did not show up at a key political anniversary on Friday, at which other top leaders were present, as well as a recent session of the country's parliament.
The KCNA report said Tuesday that Kim was accompanied on his visit to the complex by several top officials, including Hwang Pyong-So, the vice chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission who is widely seen as Kim's number two.
Hwang sprang a surprise by leading a delegation to South Korea for the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in the city of Incheon more than a week ago.
He was the most senior official from Pyongyang to have ever gone to the South, raising questions of who was in control of the nuclear-armed North Korea with Kim out of the limelight.
Kim has put on much weight since coming to power in 2011 following his father Kim Jong Il's death in a heart attack. He was seen walking with a limp in July-August.
A North Korean television report in September said he was suffering from "discomfort."
Medical experts in North Korea believe Kim is suffering from a "sciatica" problem, referring to pain, weakness, numbness, or tingling in the legs, sources told RFA's Korean Service.
A source in Yanggang province, along the northern border with China,said he had met a medical executive and cautiously asked him about Kim's health condition and that he was told that “medical teams in North Korea believe he is suffering from sciatica.”
Sciatica is a set of symptoms of leg pain and possibly tingling, numbness or weakness that originates in the lower back and travels through the buttock and down the large sciatic nerve in the back of the leg, according to Spine-health.com.
Another North Korean source in North Hamgyong province said he had contacted "well-known doctors" and that "most of them said Kim Jong Un suffered from sciatica.”
"They think that Kim Jong Un’s health condition is not critical,” the source said.
He said that while North Korea was considered a closed society, "it has characteristics of information sharing among the same occupational group."
"Thus, information about Kim Jong Un’s health has been shared among medical teams."
Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA's Korean Service. Translated by Hanna Lee. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai and Richard Finney.