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N. Korean Leader Thought To Be Ill

Western officials say North Korea's Kim Jong Il may be sick, possibly suffering from a stroke, after he fails to show up at a parade marking the nation's 60th anniversary. The country's state media is remaining silent about his absence. (Sept. 9) Video by AP

Kim has four children. His eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, 37, was caught in 2001 trying to enter Japan on a fake passport, saying he wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland. A brother-in-law, Chang Sung Taek, briefly gained stature before being purged in 2004, but in 2006 he was rehabilitated and later named to a senior post overseeing internal security.

Kim's poor health has been a subject of speculation for decades, with experts analyzing every public appearance. The North's government treats his health as a state secret.

Charles L. "Jack" Pritchard, a former White House and State Department official who is president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, said there have been many false reports concerning the health of Kim and his late father over the years. But he found it significant that Kim was not spotted at the 60th-anniversary parade because of the milestone's significance in Asian cultures. "The 60th anniversary is not something to be missed," Pritchard said. "It is the fifth cycle of 12, which for Asians is a special deal."

Moreover, he said, the 60th anniversary would have been the ideal moment for Kim to rally internal support for Pyongyang's recent resistance to the nuclear agreement.

Still, in recent months, a variety of media outlets have reported that Kim was so weak that he could not walk 30 yards (he later appeared in public and seemed able to walk), 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 because he's since appeared in public, although 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," said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.

Koh cautioned against reading too much into Kim's absence: "It is not unusual for Chairman Kim to disappear from the public view, especially when the tension on the Korean Peninsula rises or there are important decision for him to make."

Last November, as part of an agreement that exchanged aid for disarmament, North Korea began disabling a Soviet-era reactor and related facilities at Yongbyon. In June, it invited foreign crews to televise demolition of the reactor's cooling tower. But in August, it reversed course, saying the United States had not lived up to its promise to remove it from a list of state sponsors of terrorism. U.S. officials say there must first be an acceptable plan for verifying North Korea's claims.

Since Kim disappeared from public view, U.S. officials said, they have struggled to obtain decisions from North Korea on how to settle the latest dispute over its nuclear programs. For instance, though North Korea has rejected the United States' proposed verification plan, it has not provided a counterproposal.

Instead, North Korean workers have begun clearing debris at the cooling tower and appeared to ready equipment for possible reassembly.

Some analysts say that the Communist Party in North Korea is split between a "military" side and a "practical" side -- with Kim caught in the middle. The military wing has a keener interest in retaining its nuclear weapons, while the other side believes that alleviating food shortages and other issues related to the country's impoverished economy should be the top priority.

On Aug. 26, the official Korean Central News Agency carried a cryptic statement from North Korea's Foreign Ministry that "we will consider restoring the Yongbyon facilities to their original state in accordance with strong demands from our relevant agencies." Some analysts believe "relevant agencies" means the North Korean military.

This year, a report for the U.S. Congress, prepared by a staff member after traveling to Pyongyang, said "Kim's best efforts to orchestrate a balance among competing interests within the North may be a 'stretch too far' for . . . military hardliners. Discarding the jewel of their arsenal will be difficult."

Shi Yuanhua of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai said that if Kim dies, "there should be conflict inside the party. All the factions believe that their governing strategies are right."

Cha reported from Shanghai. Correspondent Blaine Harden in Tokyo, special correspondent Stella Kim in Seoul, staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington, and researchers Zhang Jie in Beijing and Crissie Ding in Shanghai contributed to this report.

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