Where's Kim Jong Il?
The North Korean leader has mysteriously vanished from public life for six weeks. The official newspaper, which carries regular and laudatory accounts of his activities, has been conspicuously silent on that account since Feb. 12, when Kim celebrated his 61st birthday at the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang.
He even missed Wednesday's opening of the Supreme People's Assembly, North Korea's parliament.
The absence of the man who dominates every aspect of daily life in North Korea has been sufficiently long to prompt much conjecture, especially in South Korea. Theories range from illness to fear of assassination, with the North Korean leader said to be mindful of the U.S.-led coalition's targeting of Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
North Korea watchers suggest the country might have declared a state of emergency, or even that Kim pulled a disappearing act to attract the international community's attention.
"He has not showed up for 43 days. To our knowledge, that is a record-breaking nonappearance for Kim Jong Il," said Choi Kang, a former South Korean presidential advisor on national security issues.
Sickness has been discounted by North Korea watchers, mindful that totalitarian states often prop up leaders, even on their deathbeds, for robust grip-and-grin publicity shots.
Most analysts are inclined to believe that Kim made a tactical decision to remove himself from the public eye because of the war in Iraq and the ongoing nuclear standoff with the United States.
"It is most likely that Kim Jong Il is taking this action on purpose," said Cho Myong Chol, a prominent North Korean defector who is now an economist in Seoul. Cho once taught at North Korea's Kim Il Sung University and is familiar with the Pyongyang leadership.
"Whenever there is a crisis or war somewhere involving the United States, the North Korean military goes on alert," Cho said. "In this case in particular, after seeing how the Americans went after Saddam Hussein, they would feel they should not expose the leader to enemy radar."
Another veteran North Korea watcher, Koh Yu Hwan of Seoul's Dongguk University, says that the crisis goes even deeper and involves a long series of failed initiatives by the North Korean leader.
Price reforms implemented last summer did not revive the economy, but instead set off rampant inflation. An effort to normalize relations with Japan in the autumn backfired. The North Koreans tried to get the United States to negotiate with them on nuclear and energy issues before the Iraq war, but failed.
"This is a leadership crisis for Kim Jong Il," Koh said. "I would imagine he is holed up in an underground bunker thinking and discussing what to do to solve all these problems."
Kim Jong Il had been considered something of a recluse before 1994, when he took over as leader after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung. He remained reclusive during the early years of his rule, but in recent years, he had become more visible. In the weeks before he disappeared from view in February, he went to a choir performance, toured navy and army installations, a military school and a Buddhist temple.
The most senior foreign diplomat to visit North Korea recently, U.N. special envoy Maurice Strong, did not meet with Kim. But he confirmed what analysts have surmised: that North Korea is fearful it could become a U.S. target after Iraq.
"It is obvious that they are well-informed and very deeply concerned about the implications of the U.S. action, particularly because it was taken without the sanction of the United Nations and it is the first major implementation of the U.S. policy of preemptive action," said Strong, who left Pyongyang on Tuesday.