North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has made an on-site visit in his first public appearance in about 40 days, Pyongyang state media reported Tuesday, taming rampant speculation over his physical health and political stature.
Kim's visit to the newly built residential district for satellite engineers and a new energy research institute marked his first "field guidance" trip since attending a concert on Sept. 3. The official Korean Central News Agency did not mention the date of the trip, but it was thought to have been Monday.
In a photo carried in the Rodong Sinmun, a ruling Workers' Party mouthpiece, Kim looks vigorous, though he has apparently lost some weight and still relies on a cane. Seoul's intelligence officials speculated that he has gout and had surgery on his leg, with French doctors entering Pyongyang for his treatment.
"Watching the exterior of the apartment houses and public buildings nicely decorated with diverse colour tiles, he was very pleased to see them. He said they looked very attractive, presenting fantastic scenery," the KCNA said.
The dispatch is expected to calm global speculation about the young leader's whereabouts. As he repeatedly missed key national and party events, rumours circulated that he was brain dead or that a military coup had taken place.
Believed to be a heavy drinker and an unhealthy eater, Kim has visibly gained weight in recent months. He had been seen walking with a limp since July. The North's official media in late September made a rare acknowledgement that he was experiencing "discomfort."
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, said Kim has undergone surgery on his left ankle and it will take two to three weeks for him to fully recover.
Kim's late father and grandfather, Jong-il and Il-sung, were known to have suffered from heart diseases.
Seoul is closely monitoring the situation. A senior official at the Unification Ministry assessed that the young ruler's outing was arranged "in a hurry" to contain the snowballing guesswork.
"I think it was intended to dismiss rumours about his downfall or serious illness outside the country," he told reporters on condition of anonymity.
The official also noted that the visit to the housing complex for scientists may show the regime's resolve to pursue parallel nuclear and economic development. The scientists were credited with putting a satellite into orbit aboard a long-range rocket in late 2012.
"It can be conjectured that he picked the venue because the project was his brainchild and it has almost become a satisfactory achievement."
Kim's unprecedentedly lengthy absence attracted attention particularly because unlike his reclusive father, he has not shied away from exposing his family to the public since taking power in December 2011.
In its typical worship-like tone, the KCNA report portrayed Kim as a devoted leader who feels "loving care" for his people.