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North Korea Is Being Even Weirder Than Usual

Leader Kim Jong Un hasn't been seen for weeks. His sister might be in charge? Or the military? What's going on?

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The last time he was filmed in public, at a commemoration ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of his grandfather, North Korea's first leader, Kim Il Sung, he was walking with a slight limp. After weeks of silence, the North Korean media finally acknowledged in an official documentary that Kim was experiencing "discomfort." Now he hasn't been seen at all since attending a concert on Sept. 3.

Speaking at a briefing for reporters at the United Nations on Tuesday, Choe Myong Nam, a North Korean foreign ministry official in charge of U.N. affairs and human rights issues, at first denied that prison camps — or even prisons at all — exist in North Korea. But he then did confirm that the country uses "reform through labor" camps.

"Both in law and practice, we do have reform through labor detention camps — no, detention centers — where people are improved through their mentality and look on their wrongdoings," Choe said. But the much harsher political prison system, thought to hold 120,000 people, went unacknowledged.

Before that admission, a top North Korean general made a surprise trip to South Korea for dialogue between the archrivals.

Yonhap / Via Reuters

General Hwang Pyong So (second from the right) meets with South Korean National Security Adviser Kim Kwan-jin (right).

Hwang Pyong So was ostensibly leading the North Korean delegation to the end of the Asian Games, held in the South Korean city of Incheon on Saturday. But in a move that left observers slightly stunned, the general also conducted talks with South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae and National Security Director Kim Kwan-jin.

As a result, the two sides agreed to resume high-level talks that stalled in February. Among the issues that will be discussed either later this month or in November will be reunions between families separated along with the peninsula decades ago, Seoul's sanctions against Pyongyang, economic aid to North Korea, and the creation of a "peace park."

The reopening of talks between the two Koreas is notable primarily because of just who engineered it. Hwang — who is not only head of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People's Army, making him the top political officer in the military, but also the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission — is often considered the second-most powerful person in North Korea.

But then just as things were looking up, the two Koreas traded warning shots days later.

Jacky Chen / Reuters

North Korean soldiers on a boat on the banks of the Yalu River, near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong.

According to South Korean defense officials, a South Korean ship fired on Tuesday at a North Korean ship that had crossed the so-called Northern Limit Line in the Yellow Sea. The North Korean vessel returned fire before turning around and retreating back into solidly North Korean waters.

"The officials, who spoke anonymously, said neither ship intended to hit one another and that no injuries or damage occurred in the early Tuesday incident," Voice of America reported.

And Kim is still missing. His disappearing act has led people to wonder if he's even still in charge in North Korea.

On Thursday he missed a meeting to mark the 17th anniversary of his father's election as general secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea that was attended by major state and army officials.

Yuri Maltsev / Reuters

A mural depicting former North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

There have been a number of theories about just what ailment it is that has Kim out of sight. According to Chosun Ibo, a widely read South Korean newspaper, Kim "had to undergo a hospital operation after putting too much strain on his ankles during a grueling round of official engagements." The report added that the injuries were a result of a combination of weight gain and "a long tour of military bases and factories while wearing shoes decked out with Cuban heels, which boosted his 5 feet 9 inches height but proved difficult to walk in."

That would explain the limp seen in the July footage, though others have concluded that the increasingly obese Kim has gout or diabetes. But even fractured ankles wouldn't prevent him from being seen at the most recent session of North Korea's version of parliament, the Supreme People's Assembly, which was held last Thursday. Instead, General Hwang presided over that meeting.

South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo said the North Korean dignitaries visiting on Saturday insisted that Kim is perfectly fine. "I asked Kim [Yang-gon, a North Korean official] about the health condition of the North Korean leader and Kim responded that there is no problem with his leader's health," Ryoo said.

The news site New Focus International reported last week that the North Korean government was restricting entry and exit from Pyongyang, the capital. This has happened before, but this time was different, it said, citing sources inside the city as saying that even residents who had been away on business when the restriction came into place were not allowed back.

The unofficial explanation is that the move is being taken ahead of the pending celebration of the Worker's Party's founding on Friday. But Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University and an authority on North Korean affairs, thinks that there has to be something more sinister at play. "This sort of action suggests there has either been an attempted coup or that the authorities there have uncovered some sort of plot against the leadership," he told The Telegraph. "If it is a military-backed coup, then the situation in Pyongyang will be very dangerous and I have heard reports that Kim has been moved out of the capital."

Others think it may be that Kim's younger sister is running the country. According to one unconfirmed report, the situation with Kim has gotten to the point that Kim Yo Jong, who has stayed out of the spotlight, may be managing the affairs of state. "She is one of the only people in [North Korea] that we know has unfettered direct access to KJU. At the present time I would not be surprised if she is sole gatekeeper," Michael Madden, manager of the North Korea Leadership Watch blog, which tracks the country's elites, told NBC.

"I don't think anybody outside of Pyongyang really knows," Michael Green, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNN.

"The fact that the number two and number three people in the North Korean system traveled out of North Korea at the same time, after the number one, Kim Jong Un, has been out of the public eye for weeks, and his wife as well, is very unusual. It's unprecedented."

Hayes Brown is a world news editor and reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Hayes Brown at hayes.brown@buzzfeed.com.

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