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Absence of N. Korea’s leader has world wondering

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visits a military unit in this photo released Aug. 11.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visits a military unit in this photo released Aug. 11.

Kim Jong-il, the enigmatic and mysterious leader of North Korea, apparently is seriously ill and missed his country’s 60th anniversary parade Tuesday, leading to speculation about his ability to rule, his successor and implications for the delicate negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.

All of the commentary and discussion was reminiscent of Kremlin-watching days during the Cold War when Western diplomats tried to analyze who was in and who was out in Moscow by analyzing attendance at military parades.

Mark Mazzetti and Choe Sang-Hun write in The New York Times:

“Mr. Kim’s health is the focus of intense attention among governments and security experts. He leads one of the world’s most isolated and unpredictable regimes, one with a nuclear weapons program that is the focus of international concern. Mr. Kim has not missed any of the 10 previous military or militia parades staged for major party, military and state anniversaries, in which columns of armored vehicles and rocket launchers rumbled through the capital Pyongyang’s main plaza as legions of goose-stepping soldiers saluted him.

“But for the 60th anniversary — a deeply significant milestone in North Korea — there was only a parade by militia groups in charge of civil defense, which Mr. Kim did not attend, said a spokesman at Seoul’s main spy agency, the National Intelligence Service. There has been speculation about Mr. Kim’s condition for some time, the American official in Washington said, but his absence at the celebration is evidence that he remains in serious condition.”

Second leader since nation’s founding
Kim succeeded his father, Kim Il-sung, after his death in 1994, and is only the second leader of North Korea since its founding in 1948. The Times notes that “Kim has three sons. None has emerged as heir-apparent and experts on North Korea are widely divided who will succeed the president.”

The conjecture over Kim’s health is significant because of the delicate negotiations over U.S.-led efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.

The London Telegraph reports:

“The [60th anniversary] celebrations are taking place amid rising tensions between Pyongyang and the international community. North Korea agreed in February 2007 to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for aid and diplomatic concessions, but the progress of the deal has been far from smooth. After a long delay, Pyongyang handed over details of its nuclear facilities in June 2008. In return, it expected the US to remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which the US has yet to do, so the North now appears to be starting to reassemble its main nuclear plant.”

Pamela Hess and Matthew Lee of the Associated Press report that “North Korea’s powerful military is known to have been opposed to the dismantlement, and many analysts believed it was proceeding — including the televised destruction of the facility’s cooling tower in July — mainly due to Kim’s support for the process and his backing of moderates in the foreign ministry. On Aug. 26, Pyongyang’s official news agency reported that the country would ‘consider soon a step to restore the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon to their original state as strongly requested by its relevant institutions.’

“Kim has held absolute power in the Stalinist regime, and the wording set off alarms that his control over the disarmament scheme may be in question and superseded by the military.”

Possible moves toward reassembling reactor
The AP says that a State Department official contends “that since last week Pyongyang has been removing equipment from storage near Yongbyon and moving it around while breaking U.N. seals on other items in what may be preparatory moves to start reassembling the reactor.”

The Times quotes Kim Keun Sik, a South Korean expert on the North, as speculating that “The nuclear talks are in a stalemate. Tensions with the United States are deepening. Kim knew that the world was watching whether he would show up today. For him, this may be a perfect chance to bring world attention to him.”

It wouldn’t be the first time that Kim’s motives and lifestyle raised questions in South

Korea and the West. A BBC profile painted this portrait of the North Korean leader:

“The little that is known about Kim conjures up a caricature of a diminutive playboy, a comic picture at odds with his brutal regime. Diplomats and escaped dissidents talk of a vain, paranoid, cognac-guzzling hypochondriac. He is said to wear platform shoes and favour a bouffant hairstyle in order to appear taller than 5ft 3in. But analysts are undecided whether his eccentricities mask the cunning mind of a master manipulator or betray an irrational madman. Mr. Kim may well encourage the myth-making surrounding him precisely in order to keep the Western world guessing. North Korea has little to bargain with, and ignorance breeds fear.

“… He is said to have a library of 20,000 Hollywood movies and to have even written a book on the cinema. He even went so far as to engineer the kidnapping, in 1978, of a South Korean film director and his girlfriend. This taste for the exotic apparently extends to gastronomy. Konstantin Pulikovsky, a Russian emissary who travelled with Mr. Kim by train across Russia, reported that the North Korean leader had live lobsters air-lifted to the train every day which he ate with silver chopsticks.”

Reports of stroke or collapse in mid-August
Glenn Kessler and Arian Eunjung Cha report in The Washington Post that Kim, according to Japanese and South Korean intelligence reports, suffered a stroke in mid-August and was last seen publicly Aug. 14. “Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, today also quoted an official with the South Korean Embassy in Beijing who said the reclusive Kim, who suffers from diabetes and heart problems, collapsed on Aug. 22.”

And this morning the AP reported that “On Wednesday, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service reported to a parliamentary committee that it obtained intelligence reports showing Kim recently had surgery for an unspecified circulatory problem, and his condition had much improved, an agency official said.”

But even those specifics cannot be verified. The Post notes:

“In recent months, a variety of media outlets have reported that he was so weak he could not walk 30 meters (he later appeared in public and seemed to be able to walk fine), that a group of German doctors went to North Korea to perform heart surgery on him (the doctors denied it) and that he passed away (most likely untrue since he’s since appeared in public, but at least one veteran expert has suggested the government could be using body doubles).

” ‘The problem with North Korea-related stories is that none of us can confirm them unless we go and ask them, and so much of these remain to be speculation,’ said Koh Yu-whan, a professor of North Korean Studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.”

The Post quotes analysts as saying that “the Communist Party in North Korea is split between those who are on the ‘military’ side and those on the ‘practical’ side with Kim caught in the middle. Those on the military side have more of an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons and those on the other side believe that food shortages and other issues related to the country’s impoverished economy should be the top priority.”

With Kim, known in North Korea as the “Dear Leader,” apparently seriously ill and at least temporarily out of the picture, it may be some time before we know which side will prevail.

Doug Stone writes about national and international topics for MinnPost. He is a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV.

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