By Glenn Kessler and Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il did not appear at North Korea's 60th-anniversary parade yesterday, lending credence to intelligence reports that he may be gravely ill after suffering a stroke.
Kim, known in the communist North as the "Dear Leader," typically presides over mass gatherings on such occasions, waving to crowds as they shout praises to him in unison. Kim appeared at the 50th- and 55th-anniversary parades, and a 60th anniversary is considered highly important in Korean society.
His death or incapacitation would probably frustrate the U.S.-led effort to eliminate North Korea's nuclear weapons programs just as it appears to be gathering momentum. Kim was last seen in public Aug. 14; shortly after that, North Korea announced it would begin to reassemble its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which it had agreed to dismantle under a landmark accord.
Some U.S. officials indicated the reversal may stem from a power struggle already underway. The North Korean military is believed to have remained suspicious of the disarmament program and may be using a Kim illness to reassert its view.
U.S. sources, citing South Korean and Japanese intelligence reports, said Kim, who is believed to be 66 or 67, suffered an apparent stroke in mid-August. One U.S. intelligence official who confirmed the apparent stroke said it possibly occurred Aug. 14, dismissing reports it happened later in August.
On Monday, North Korea's nominal No. 2 leader, Kim Yong Nam, gave a 60th-anniversary speech that referred to Kim Jong Il mainly in the past tense, said Jonathan Pollack, an Asia expert at the Naval War College. "Generally, when he is praised to the skies, it is in the present tense. But the predominant tone is looking back," he said.
Adding to the puzzle, after widespread reports that Kim failed to appear at the parade, the official Korean Central News Agency issued a short item in English: "Reception Given by Leader Kim Jong Il for Overseas Compatriots on Tuesday." No other text or photos of such a meeting were issued.
In Pyongyang today, Kim Yong Nam and a senior diplomat denied reports that Kim Jong Il was ill, according to Kyodo News, a Japanese news agency.
It quoted Kim Yong Nam as saying there was "no problem" with the North Korean leader.
"We see such reports as not only worthless, but rather as a conspiracy plot," Song Il Ho, North Korea's ambassador for normalizing relations with Japan, told Kyodo News.
Kim Jong Il has not been seen at any of the events for the anniversary, which included a mass games performance in a stadium that can hold 100,000 people, and a major meeting of North Korean officials, according to Kyodo News.
North Korea, a tightly controlled, xenophobic state, has had only two leaders since its founding -- the pudgy, bouffant-haired Kim, who has ruled since 1994, and his late father, Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder. Kim Jong Il -- who likes French wine, travels abroad only by train and presided over a famine in the 1990s that left an estimated 2 million people dead -- appears not to have named a clear successor, in contrast to his father, who had clearly identified his son as heir more than a decade before his death.
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.