NORTH Korean tyrant Kim Jong-un may have gone AWOL to flush out "traitors" who secretly hope to snatch power, a report claims.
The allegation comes as a former senior North Korean diplomat apologised for saying Kim was likely so ill he could not stand, days before he suddenly emerged in state media chain-smoking and walking briskly at an event.
Sky News Australia claims that Kim, 36, could have deliberately pretended to be dead by going missing for 20 days, to suss out whether he was surrounded by usurpers in his inner circle.
Kim disappeared from state media for three weeks – an unusually long time for the photogenic leader – sparking a flurry of speculation about his health and whereabouts.
There was even a suggestion that he could have died after botched heart surgery.
Some experts expressed concern about prospects for the nuclear-armed state in the event of an unexpected succession.
But he broke cover last week, with North Korean media publishing photos and video of Kim at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the inauguration of a fertiliser plant.
Sky's Outsiders host James Morrow told Australian viewers that the dictator might have been doing a "classic Stalinist manoeuvre" to gauge people's response.
And he's likely to use their reactions both during and after his secret getaway to start "purging" those he suspects pushed to take power.
Morrow added: "What has probably gone on here that the rumours of his demise was greatly exaggerated.
"He decided to do this, lay low, and see how things broke power wise, and see who tried to take power in the event of his actual demise.
"I suspect we will see some purges in North Korea pretty soon."
Kim's re-emergence came as a blow to the credibility of some high-profile defectors from the North who had speculated that Kim was suffering from a grave illness or could even be dead.
One of the defectors, Thae Yong-ho, was North Korea's deputy ambassador to Britain, where he managed secret funds for the despot.
Thae fled to South Korea in 2016 and was one of a pair of defectors elected to parliament last month.
Reuters reported today that Thae said in a statement: "I am aware that one of the reasons why many of you voted for me as a lawmaker is with the expectations of an accurate analysis and projections on North Korean issues.
"I feel the blame and heavy responsibility.
"Whatever the reasons [for his disappearance], I apologise to everyone."
Another prominent defector elected to parliament, Ji Seong-ho, had said in a media interview he was 99 per cent certain that Kim had died after cardiovascular surgery and an official announcement would come as soon as last Saturday.
Daily NK, a Seoul-based news outlet with sources inside North Korea, reported in April that Kim was recovering from a heart op.
A downbeat Ji said in a statement: "I have pondered on myself for the past few days, and felt the weight of the position that I'm in.
"As a public figure, I will behave carefully going forward."
South Korea's ruling Democratic Party criticised the pair for carelessness and said their mistake could do more serious harm than just misinforming the public.
One party member urged them to be excluded from the intelligence and defence committees, while another said the defectors contributed little to South Korean society.
A group of activists lodged a complaint with prosecutors accusing Thae, Ji and the main opposition party chief of spreading fake information.
Ji's party acknowledged he had made "rash, careless" remarks but criticised the ruling party for undermining the two and "instigating hatred" towards them.
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