South Korean officials steer clear of Kim health rumours

Seoul (AFP) - South Korea declined any official comment Friday on growing speculation over the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un who has not been seen in public for more than three weeks.

The South's permanently primed North Korea rumour mill has been feeding off Kim's extended absence, and stepped up a gear when he failed to attend a session of parliament on Thursday.

State television coverage of Kim in July had shown the young leader walking with a pronounced limp, and speculation over the reason for his latest no-show has ranged from an attack of gout to an injury he may have picked up while providing "guidance" to North Korean athletes competing in the ongoing Asian Games.

In a press briefing Friday, the South's Unification Ministry refused to add any new theorie=o the mix.

"North Korea has not made any official announcement... so we don't have anything to comment on", a ministry spokeswoman said.

"We are watching with various possibilities in mind, including the rumours about health problems," she added.

The North's Supreme People's Assembly, or parliament, only meets once or twice a year to rubber-stamp budgets or other decisions made by the ruling party.

It has little real power and there is no onus on Kim to attend when it is convened, although Friday's session was the first he has missed since coming to power three year ago.

Kim, who is believed to be 30 or 31, was last seen attending a musical concert in Pyongyang with his wife, Ri Sol-Ju, on September 3.

It is by no means unprecedented for a North Korean leader to drop out of the public eye for a while, but it is more noticeable with Kim who has maintained a particularly pervasive media presence since assuming power on the death of his father Kim Jong-Il in 2011.

Much has been made of the state TV footage that showed him limping at a national memorial meeting in July to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of his grandfather and North Korea's founder Kim Il-Sung.

The South's Yonhap news agency on Friday quoted an unidentified source saying Kim was suffering from gout, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Another source told the agency that a North Korean medical team had visited Germany and Switzerland for consultations on Kim's health issues.

Hong Hyun-Ik, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute think-tank in Seoul, warned against reading too much into Kim's absence.

"Curiosity about Kim Jong-Un's well-being tends to be overblown in the South," Hong said.

"It's quite possible that he's just tired and resting up," Hong said, noting that Kim had undertaken a hectic schedule, including trips to outlying military outposts, during the summer months.

Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, stressed that Kim's name was not entirely absent from the report published by the North's official KCNA news agency on the parliamentary session.

The KCNA despatch said the assembly had elected three people to the North's powerful National Defence Commission (NDC) "at the proposal of Marshal Kim Jong-Un".

One of those elected was Kim confidante Hwang Pyong-So, who was promoted to NDC vice chairman.

"Even if he's not in great shape, there appears to be little change in Kim's grip on power," Yang said.