N. Korea's Kim misses big celebration, may be seriously ill

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 9, 2008 

WASHINGTON — North Korean leader Kim Jong Il failed to appear Tuesday at a military parade marking the nuclear-armed communist state's 60th anniversary, and a U.S. intelligence official said Kim appeared to be seriously ill and might have had a stroke.

Kim has ruled North Korea since his father died in 1994, and his incapacity would raise significant worries about the country's stability and the future of already-troubled diplomatic efforts to eliminate its nuclear weapons cache.

"There is reason to believe that the North Korean leader has suffered serious health setbacks in recent months, possibly to include a stroke," said the U.S. official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

A South Korean newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, reported this week that Kim, who's thought to be 67, collapsed in August and was being treated by Chinese doctors. It cited South Korean diplomats in Beijing.

Kim — best-known in the West for his puffy hairstyle, large glasses and platform shoes — has for years been the subject of rumors about his health, which have proved unfounded in the past. North Korea is a closed, one-party state, and there's no way to confirm Kim's condition.

His failure to appear at the parade in Pyongyang was highly unusual given the event's importance, U.S. officials and North Korea-watchers said. Kim hasn't appeared in public since mid-August.

In late August, North Korea announced that it was suspending the disablement of its facilities to make fuel for nuclear weapons. The regime accused the Bush administration of reneging on a promise to remove it from the State Department's terrorism list; U.S. officials said Pyongyang must first agree to procedures for outsiders to verify that its declaration of nuclear facilities is complete.

Since the announcement, North Korea has taken steps, such as breaking seals on equipment, toward restarting its nuclear weapons program.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Tuesday that he couldn't confirm reports of Kim's ill health, but suggested that there may be problems with North Korea's decision-making process.

He said they'd seen no data fulfilling the terms of North Korea's agreement to a verification regime over the past several weeks.

Kim in the past earned a reputation as a heavy drinker and smoker and a lover of fine foods. Korea-watchers say that photographs of him over the last eight years show a man who's aged rapidly.

Unlike his late father, "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, the younger Kim hasn't publicly anointed any of his three sons to succeed him.

Kenneth Gause, who's studied North Korea's leadership for 20 years, said there were a half-dozen scenarios for the impoverished country's future if Kim died. They range from a collective leadership taking over to a senior general seizing power to complete collapse, he said.

If the latter were to happen, "it'd be more like a slow-motion collapse as opposed to something violent," said Gause, who directs the foreign-leadership studies program at CNA, a federally funded research group.

He said those who might succeed Kim, perhaps as part of a collective leadership, included Kim's brother-in-law, Jang Song Taek, who'd been under house arrest for reasons that were unclear, and Kim Yong Nam, who had significant foreign affairs experience and was the president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly.

Gause said another possibility was a takeover of North Korea by a military strongman, who'd have to be someone with access to closely guarded information about Kim's condition and to military resources.

Candidates include Gen. O Kok Yul, whose position puts him in charge of the country's elite special forces, Gause said.

Bobby Egan, a Hackensack, N.J., restaurant owner who's developed an unusual back channel to North Korean officials and hosted them for a decade in his eatery, said he'd spoken to officials at North Korea's United Nations mission Tuesday and was assured that Kim Jong Il is healthy.

"They said, 'There is nothing to worry about, his excellency is fine. It's a stir up in the media,' " Egan said. "If there was a major issue, I would know about it."

Egan speculated that the furor over Kim's health is a North Korean tactic to put pressure on the United States in the nuclear talks.

(Kevin G. Hall contributed to this article.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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