SEOUL, October 29- North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un hosted a banquet for athletes who won gold medals at the recent Asian Games in South Korea, state media said Sunday, marking his third public appearance in a week after an extended absence.
Kim praised the medallists for proving “the validity and vitality of the party’s plan for building a sports powerhouse”, the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
North Korea took 11 gold medals, 11 silver and 14 bronze in its best Asian Games performance since 1990, held in the South Korean city of Incheon from September 19 to October 4.
Kim is known to be a big sports fan, showering the country’s star athletes with lavish cars, awards and houses.
He is also reportedly a huge follower of basketball and especially of the Chicago Bulls — former Bulls player Dennis Rodman has made several controversial trips to North Korea to visit Kim, whom he calls a personal friend.
The celebratory banquet, believed to have been held Saturday, was also attended by Kim’s wife as well as senior military, party and government officials, KCNA said.
Pictures published by state media on Sunday showed a smiling Kim, a black cane in his left hand, posing and talking with players from the women’s football team.
Kim resurfaced earlier this week after dropping out of the public eye for nearly six weeks — an unexplained absence that triggered frenzied speculation about his health and his grip on power.
Photographs from his first appearance, believed to have been on Monday, showed him using a walking stick, backing up reports that his disappearance was the result of a leg injury or condition.
On Friday the ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun ran front page pictures of Kim, aided by the same cane, inspecting two high-rise apartment complexes built for faculty members of a university specialising in nuclear research.
The Kim dynasty has ruled the isolated, Stalinist country for more than six decades with an iron fist and pervasive personality cult.
Since assuming power after the death of his father Kim Jong-Il in 2011, Kim Jong-Un has cut a very public figure, with state media showing him engaged in a seemingly endless series of field guidance trips across the country.
South Korea said Thursday it would pay more than 70 percent of the $700,000 costs incurred by North Korea when it took part in the Games in Incheon.
The issue of subsidising the North’s presence at the Games became problematic ahead of the event, when Seoul proposed breaking with its custom of supporting visiting sports teams from the North.
In the end, an understanding was reached that the South would foot part of the bill, though not all of it as in the past.