The extended absence of Kim Jong-un from North Korean state television stoked fears on Sunday that his health was rapidly deteriorating and endangering the communist state's political stability.
Unconfirmed speculations have been floating in Seoul's political circles regarding Kim's health as he has not been seen on the North's official television broadcasts since Sep 3.
Kim, believed to be around 31 years old, is bedbound after a failed surgery left him "almost brain dead," according to some rumours, while the ensuing power vacuum has made three senior officials ― Choe Ryong-hae, Hwang Pyong-so and Kim Yang-gon - the country's de facto coheads, amid increased political infighting among Pyongyang elites.
Some have suggested there has been a coup.
But analysts and officials downplayed the theories.
"I seriously doubt that Kim is in a vegetative state," said Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector-turned-scholar in Seoul, and head of the World Institute for North Korean studies.
Ahn added that Kim likely received ankle surgery and could be suffering from facial dents, side effects of cosmetic surgeries he received before rising to power, keeping him away from television cameras. "But he is still the one in charge."
"North Korea still retains a sense of authoritarianism in its culture. Kim has also already purged the top brass in North Korea, and only his closest assistants remain in power," Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute in Seoul said.
"So I don't expect Kim to fall from power that easily."
The South's Unification Minister Ryu Gil-jae also said last week Kim Jong-un was doing fine during a recent interview with KBS, quoting Kim Yang-gon, Pyongyang's top official on inter-Korean issues. Seoul's Defence Minister Han Min-koo said Kim was resting at his residence, according to "reliable sources," during a hearing at the Defence Ministry last Tuesday.
The current uncertainty means the South should work to ease tensions with the North, according to Cheong. "If Kim's absence lengthens, it is likely North Korean officials will react sensitively to all these rumours."
To stabilize itself politically, the North could engage in aggressive policies such as going ahead with a fourth nuclear test, Cheong said.
"We must take a strategic approach to the current state of affairs and possibly prepare for a post-Kim Jong-un era."
Kim's 39-day absence from the North's official news broadcasts has raised fears that the closed regime could collapse, or at least undergo some kind of political upheaval.
New hypotheses concerning North Korea's political future arose anew last Friday when Kim was conspicuously absent from a ceremony celebrating the anniversary of the foundation of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party.