PYONGYANG, North Korea, Oct. 6 (UPI) -- Rumors that North Korea's Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un has been deposed have heightened in intensity following a surprise trip by the country's No. 2 leader to visit South Korea.
Kim has not been seen publicly since September 4, and is reportedly suffering from gout, the "kings' malady" form of arthritis brought on by rich diet and sedentary lifestyle. He also reportedly underwent surgery for two broken ankles.
But according to some experts, his absence from the September meeting of the nation's rubber-stamp congress, the Supreme People's Assembly, is only the latest indication that something has gone seriously awry for the dictator.
The trip to South Korea, led by recently elevated Hwang Pyong So, was an unusual step forward for proponents of reconciliation.
The trip comes just days after Jang Jin Sung, a former counterintelligence official and high-ranking member of Kim Jong Il's regime, told fellow exiles in Netherlands that he believed recent events only added evidence that Kim was no longer in charge.
Jang believes a powerful group of officials consolidated by Kim Jong Il have stopped taking orders from his son, essentially wresting control of the country. He says the Organization and Guidance Department actually took power last year, as evidenced by the execution of their rival, the formerly politically untouchable uncle of Kim Jong Un, Jang Song Thaek.
"When Jang Song Thaek was executed that was, basically, that totally broke everything," Jang told Vice News. "You just can't touch a Kim family member publicly... It's the OGD's claim to legitimacy. It's them saying no one is more legitimate than them. By Jang dying, Kim Jong Un is now surrounded by the OGD."
Jang said the OGD's power has grown such that Kim has been reduced to a puppet, and that his absence has been orchestrated for their purposes.
Adding fuel to the fire were reports from inside North Korea that Pyongyang has instituted a new travel ban to enter the capital city.
"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," Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University and an authority on North Korean affairs, 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."
Last week, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. was aware of the reports.
"I can just say that I have no confirmation of the reports," she said. "We've seen them, but we don't have any confirmation."
Regardless of the state of Kim's political well-being, recent images, and family health history, certainly indicate his actual health problems are real.
Television footage released by the state media show Kim walking with a pronounced limp, and he has grown increasingly overweight, both symptoms of gout. According to South Korean news agency Yonhap, both his father and grandfather, Kim Il Sung, suffered from the disease.
Other Korea watchers say the unusual report of Kim's "discomfort" actually indicates that the young leader remains fully in power.
"These are signals but signals only for people in the know," Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Kookmin University, told Time. "I am quite sure the official media reports about his ill health would have been signed off on by the great man himself."
"If there had been regicide or revolt in Pyongyang, it's unlikely the wheels of North Korean diplomacy would spin like business as usual," adds John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.
"These episodes reveal as much about us as them -- our own assumptions, even obsessions, when it comes to North Korea," Delury said. "We assume North Korea must be on the brink of collapse, so when the young leader suspends his relentless 'onsite guidance visits' for a few weeks, we assume he's been overthrown."
Kim has repeatedly disappeared for extended periods before, including 10 days in July and 18 days in January 2013. And twice, in March and June 2012, Kim avoided public view for three weeks at a time.
And while the delegation to South Korea reportedly told their counterparts that "there is nothing wrong with the health of Secretary Kim," others say his sister has taken over in his absence.
North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity said last week that Kim Yo Jong convened a meeting of Workers' Party officials in early September, securing her position as regent while her brother was hospitalized.
"All party officials have been commanded to continue faithfully carrying out Kim Jong-Un's orders and the military has been put on high alert," NKIS said.