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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un absent from parliament meet

Kim Jong Un
KCNA | Reuters
Kim Jong Un

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was absent from a gathering of top party and government officials on Thursday, state television showed, fueling speculation that health problems may be keeping the 31-year-old out of the public eye.

Kim had been expected to attend a meeting of the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), or parliament, which is the highest sovereign body, with powers to revise the constitution, make key appointments and approve the budget.

The meeting was the first Kim Jong Un has not attended since he came to power three years ago. State television broadcast images of his chair standing vacant for the duration of the function.

Kim, who is considerably overweight, has not featured in state media broadcasts since appearing at a concert alongside his wife and former state entertainer Ri Sol Ju this month.

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In July, he was seen walking with a limp at an event with key officials.

But analysts warned against reading too much into Kim's absence.

"Kim Jong Il didn't attend every time, either," said Chris Green, a North Korea expert at Seoul-based Daily NK website. "Moreover, we know that the SPA primarily performs a demonstrative function, it is not a true decision-making body."

At the meeting, state media said, Choe Ryong Hae had been removed from the post of vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, a body chaired by Kim, and was replaced by Hwang Pyong So.

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Hwang is a member of a powerful faction created in the 1970s under former leader Kim Jong Il, the father of the current leader, to boost a personality cult around his family.

Choe had been widely seen as a new right-hand man to Kim Jong Un after he purged his uncle last year, but had since fallen back into the shadows.

"Hwang's appointment as NDC Vice Chairman shows that he has truly risen to become the regime's de facto number two official," said Michael Madden, a North Korean leadership expert and contributor to the 38 North website.

Hwang was appointed "according to the wishes of Marshall Kim Jong Un", the North's official KCNA news agency said.