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Kim’s absence further fuels speculation

Magnier is a Times staff writer.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was absent from a high-level funeral, South Korean officials said Friday, fueling a new round of speculation on his medical condition.

The 66-year-old failed to appear at the funeral of Pak Sung Chol this week, South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon said at a news conference.

Pak, 95, was considered the last of the communist state’s first-generation revolutionaries. He held key positions under Kim Il Sung, the current leader’s father and the nation’s founder, who was treated as a near-god. Honoring someone of Pak’s standing is considered extremely important in the one-party state.

He served in various jobs from 1950 into the 1970s and eventually rose to membership in the Politburo, reportedly retaining his status as the nation’s fifth-most-powerful official until his death.

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Kim Jong Il hasn’t been seen in public for months amid unconfirmed reports that he had suffered a stroke in August. Pyongyang has denied the reports, labeling them a Western conspiracy. In an apparent attempt to quiet the conjecture, North Korea said last month that Kim had attended a soccer match and inspected a women’s military unit.

A report on Pak’s funeral by the official North Korean news agency said a wreath given by Kim rested beside Pak’s bier. The report’s turgid lead sentence, which contained more words than Kim’s age, listed people who paid tribute to the old fighter.

Kim also missed a military parade marking the 60th anniversary of the nation’s founding in September and a celebration of the ruling Workers’ Party last month, both major milestones on the North Korean calendar. The uncertainty is worrisome in an erratic totalitarian state that tested a nuclear device in October 2006.

With Pyongyang silent about its leader, pundits, the news media and foreign governments have tried to interpret the limited circumstantial evidence available. It points to Kim still being alive, analysts said, given the lack of unusual military or government activity and the fact that the North has not been canceling visits or reeling in its delegations.

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“But given the seriousness of a stroke, this brings to the fore the issue of stability in the North Korean regime,” said L. Gordon Flake, a North Korea specialist and executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington. “In the end, we can probably conclude this is the beginning of the final chapter.”

Kim took over leadership of the country after his father died in 1994. But the succession was planned decades in advance and telegraphed widely to the North Korean public. This time, there is no obvious replacement.

Analysts said it’s likely that Kim’s apparent health problems have accelerated succession thinking. Unlike African dictators, Asian strongmen don’t tend to resist succession planning, said Mei Renyi, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

“I think there’s a secret arrangement that hasn’t come to the surface yet,” he said. “Even during China’s dynasty period, there was this tradition when the emperor got sick.”

North Korea experts said that for every theory on Kim’s successor, there are compelling reasons against it. Although one view has it that the military could take over, led by the National Defense Commission, this body doesn’t even have its own building, Flake said.

The idea that Kim’s female caregiver, Kim Ok, and his inner personal circle might get the nod calls into question whether this group has the power base needed to govern.

Another possibility is the Organization and Guidance Department, which controls government appointments. Little is known about this entity, nor has its profile been elevated to prepare for such a role.

Finally, there is Kim’s oldest son, 37-year-old Kim Jong Nam. But he fell into disfavor after he was detained in 2001 for sneaking into Japan on a fake passport in an attempt to visit Tokyo Disneyland. Kim Jong Il’s two younger sons, in their 20s, are widely viewed as too inexperienced.

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When Kim does die, whether in the near future or years from now, there probably will be a struggle, said Chinese scholars who recall the maneuvering that followed the death of Chairman Mao Tse-tung in 1976.

“There will be fights for power and control. It is a basic rule,” said Niu Jun, a professor at Peking University. “It is really rare for the situation to be quickly fixed and become stable after the old leader is out.”

Some point out that Kim has disappeared from public view for months at a time only to reappear. Flake said his conversations with Chinese officials have convinced him that even they don’t have much insight, despite being the North’s closest allies.

As the mystery deepens, driblets of purported intelligence continue to surface. A South Korean intelligence official told lawmakers this week that Kim was still running the country despite his health setback.

A Japanese television station reported that Kim’s eldest son had flown to Paris to recruit a neurosurgeon for his father. But the doctor, Fran- cois-Xavier Roux, soon turned up in Beijing explaining that he was attending a professional conference and was not engaged in any secret mission.

A defector group in South Korea also used balloons to drop leaflets on the North recently that included speculation on Kim’s health, which infuriated the regime. The leaflets -- some affixed with paper money so people would be more likely to read the forbidden messages -- also included a Kim family tree that claimed he kept dozens of mistresses. Pyongyang threatened to shut down a North-South industrial project in Kaesong, North Korea, in retaliation.

“Kim Jong Il’s actions and reactions are very different from those of a normal politician,” said Huang Zongliang, an international relations professor at Peking University. “This makes it very difficult to know what’s going on and makes his activities even more mysterious.”

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mark.magnier@latimes.com


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