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Talk swirls that Kim may be gravely ill

Times Staff Writers

It’s not unusual for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to disappear from public view. But his absence Tuesday from a military parade marking a major anniversary coincided with reports that the autocratic Kim may be gravely ill.

Or maybe not.

The lack of solid evidence about the state of Kim’s health underscores how little the world knows about a country that has detonated a nuclear explosion, frequently berates and threatens its neighbors, and once again may be on the verge of famine.

A U.S. intelligence official said it appeared the 66-year-old leader “has suffered a health setback, potentially a stroke.”

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The episode occurred in the last two to three weeks, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing intelligence assessments. He noted that U.S. officials were watching developments closely in one of the world’s poorest and most reclusive countries because of the far-reaching effects they could have on world affairs.

The communist regime’s survival relies heavily on a cult of personality around the “dear leader,” and Kim’s passing could usher in a collapse that many analysts believe is years overdue.

Kim’s prolonged illness or death also could hurt international efforts to rid North Korea of its nuclear arsenal. The country’s generals, who are known to oppose surrendering its nuclear weapons, might take control.

Tuesday was the 60th anniversary of the state’s founding, a date that in Korean tradition is more important than anniversary celebrations five and 10 years earlier that Kim did attend. Kim normally would have presided at a military parade in Pyongyang, the capital, but foreign diplomats were told several days ago that they could bring cameras, which was taken as an indication that Kim would not be there.

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The New China News Agency reported that only Kim Yong Nam, the 80-year-old second in command, made a public appearance at an anniversary banquet Tuesday evening.

Kim Jong Il was groomed for decades to succeed his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994 at age 82. The younger Kim is visibly overweight, walks with a slight limp and is reported by South Korean intelligence to have diabetes and a heart condition.

He is widely reported to like Western movies and luxury goods such as French cognac and designer watches.

A South Korean newspaper reported that Kim collapsed Aug. 22, but it also said there did not appear to be a panic over his health in the capital. Today, the North’s No. 2 leader, Kim Yong Nam, said there is “no problem” with the supreme leader, and a senior diplomat said the reports of ill health are “not true,” according to Japan’s Kyodo News agency.

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Some observers, noting there have been repeated reports about Kim’s health, cautioned against reading too much into the latest batch.

“He is going to die sooner or later, and eventually one of these reports about his health will be true, but this one is probably much ado about nothing,” said Andrei Lankov, a respected Pyongyang watcher and a professor at South Korea’s Kookmin University.

He said the extreme secrecy surrounding the North Korean regime made it unlikely that either the United States or South Korea had reliable intelligence.

Kim’s last public appearance was Aug. 14, when he was reported by the state news service to have inspected a military unit. However, it is not unusual for him to disappear for months at a time.

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Sean McCormack, the chief State Department spokesman, said that while it was difficult to interpret the actions of the Kim regime, U.S. officials have noticed recently that the North Koreans have not been moving ahead in talks on ending their nuclear program with representatives of the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.

Pyongyang and those five countries have been at an impasse over inspections to verify claims North Korea made in a statement in June about the condition and contents of its nuclear arsenal.

Pyongyang last fall began taking apart its aging nuclear reactor at Yongbyon in a deal under which it is to receive aid in exchange for disarmament. But last month, North Korea said it was considering restoring the plant to operation because the Bush administration had not made good on its pledge to remove North Korea from a list of state sponsors of terrorism.

U.S. officials say that step can’t be taken under the deal until North Korea agrees to an inspection program.

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North Korea’s plutonium-based weapons program is believed to have produced the fissile material used in a nuclear blast in October 2006. But North Korea also is known to have received parts and plans for developing a uranium-enrichment program from renegade Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. Adding to Western concerns, North Korea has in the past been eager to export weaponry.

Kim has three sons, but analysts are skeptical that any of them could replace him.

The sons have spent much of their lives abroad. The oldest, Kim Jong Nam, 37, fell into disfavor after he was arrested in 2001 sneaking into Japan to visit Disneyland on a fake passport. Two other sons are in their 20s.

One possible successor is Chang Sung Taek, 61, who is married to Kim’s youngest sister. Chang was purged in 2004 but has returned to public life in the last two years. He accompanied Kim on a visit to China in 2006.

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“When he does die, it will be havoc because there is no mechanism in place for power transfer,” Lankov said. “There will be a lot of contenders for supremacy. Unless we have somebody who will be charismatic, ruthless and popular, we will probably see open clashes in Pyongyang, maybe shooting.”

L. Gordon Flake, a Korea watcher and executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington, said the military’s influence would probably grow because it is the only important institution that has not collapsed in famine and economic contraction.

The military is “the most reactionary, opaque institution in North Korea, particularly in regards to nuclear weapons,” he said.

One of the major concerns of North Korea watchers is what has happened to the already built nuclear weapons, which are believed to be stashed away in caves.

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North Korea’s immediate neighbors, especially China and South Korea, also worry that the country’s 22 million people will seek aid across the border. During the mid-1990s, an estimated 2 million people died of hunger. The U.N. World Food Program reported recently that food shortages were headed again toward 1990s levels.

Some of the recent speculation about Kim’s health has been fueled by tabloid reports from Japan, as well as a new book claiming that his public appearances in recent years have been made by look-alikes.

“There are people in the military who hope to maintain their power and position. They don’t want a new leader,” said Toshimitsu Shigemura, author of the book, “The True Character of Kim Jong Il,” which was published last month in Tokyo. Shigemura said that Kim might already be incapacitated or dead.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Richter reported from Washington and Demick from Beijing.


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