There has been much talk and speculation at the "disappearance" of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Kim has not made a public appearance since a July 4 visit to a tire factory in Pyongyang (though some say his July 3 attendance at a Russian folk music concert was the last appearance). Shortly thereafter, North Korea launched seven missiles into the East Sea. Since that time, Kim has not been seen publicly (though he has apparently had written communication with foreign leaders).
This lack of public appearances is being interpreted as a sign of crisis in North Korea following the missile tests. I think "crisis" may be too strong a word. Kim has taken extended absences before, during times of significant internal planning, debate and reshaping of foreign and domestic policies. Remember that Kim called home all North Korea's overseas diplomats – another sign of a recentralizing of policy and a way to obtain a clearer read of how other nations saw the DPRK actions and position. There are signs that North Korea is also having its unofficial overseas observers and advisors redouble their efforts to better understand the United States government and its read on North Korea.
All this while Pyongyang is feeling toward China as Seoul feels toward the United States - they need each other, they have a historical friendship, but their primary interests are diverging.
So about the long absences...
In 2003, there were three conspicuous absences. First was between February 12 and April 3, during which Kim missed the opening of the SPA session and his own birthday. There were rumors at the time that Kim spent some of that absence in Beijing on a secret consultative mission. Kim's disappearance coincided with the start of the war in Iraq, something that, at the height of the "Axis of Evil" comments, raised new concerns in Pyongyang.
On April 23, after North Korea basically threatened to formally declare itself a nuclear state if it didn't get concessions from Washington, representatives of the United States, North Korea and China sat down for unsubstantial talks – but talks nonetheless. The February through April absence was apparently a planning stage for North Korea's negotiations in an attempt to bring about its goal of a non-aggression pact or a formal peace accord with the United States by the July 2003 fiftieth anniversary of the Korean War Armistice. It obviously didn't work.
The second major "disappearance" was from his September 9 meeting with Pulokovski to his October 20 inspection of KPA Unit 534's farm. This gap followed a September 6 North Korean cabinet shuffle, and coincided with another low point in North Korean-Chinese relations, with the planned visit of Wu Bangguo repeatedly delayed. In early October, North Korea announced it had reprocessed some 8000 fuel rods, another step toward nuclear weapon production. Pyongyang also said it never promised to restart the stalled six-party talks. On October 20, the day of Kim Jong Il's re-appearance, North Korea test fired a couple of anti-ship missiles, and repeated the operation the next day. Within a week, it became clear that Pyongyang had bypassed Beijing, and re-opened quiet contacts with the United States through United Nations channels in New York.
The third and final extended absence in 2003 followed Kim Jong Il's long-delayed meeting with Wu Bangguo on October 30, and lasted until Kim inspected KPA Unit 350 December 9. Wu had delivered a not-so-pleasant message to Kim during their meeting - cease the nuclear crisis, stop playing around with missiles, or risk losing Chinese economic and political support. Beijing had linked its economic and political relations with Washington to its ability to keep Kim in line and bring North Korea to a negotiated settlement on the nuclear issue, and Pyongyang was clearly not cooperating to Beijing's expectations.
There was another nearly month-long gap in Kim's public appearances, this time in 2005, between March 8 and April 6. This, too, followed a rift in North Korean-Chinese relations, following a rather unambiguous (and therefore uncharacteristic) February 10 statement by the North Korean Foreign ministry that Pyongyang had "manufactured nukes for self-defense." This comment led China to dispatch an envoy to North Korea a few weeks later, the result of which was simply a more public appearance of Chinese-North Korean tensions.
On March 3, North Korea said it was no longer bound by its missile moratorium. One week later, Kim went walkabout. During this gap, North Korea sent its Prime Minister to China, where he studiously avoided discussing the nuclear crisis or a solution, and instead studied Chinese economic reform experiences. Shortly after that visit, as March wound to a close, North Korea claimed it was now a "full-fledged nuclear power." Following Kim’s April 6 reappearance, North Korean relations with China remained strained, there was little seen new in DPRK-USA relations, but ties with South Korea had grown more positive. On May 1, North Korea tested a new KN-02 missile, a variant on Russia's SS-21 Scarab. In Late July, the six-party talks finally resumed, with their longest session, with a joint statement being issued September 19. That was the last substantive progress made in the nuclear negotiations.
It would seem that, in each of the preceding cases, there are a few commonalities. First, there is usually trouble with China. We are seeing that today as well. Second, there is usually some belligerent action or statement associated with the absence, either just before, during, or just after (or all three), though this could just be a coincidence as there are many belligerent statements and actions from North Korea. Finally, though not always so readily apparent, each absence was accompanied by a rethinking and reshaping of policies, both international diplomacy and domestic economics. This, too, we may see now.
Or this is all just an excessive reading into North Korean politics, and in fact Kim Jong Il is just on an extended honeymoon with his newest bride, Kim Ok.