A simple question about Kim Jong Il’s health provokes a torrent of angry, broken English.
“It’s a pack of lies,” declared Oh Keum Suk. The 26-year-old North Korean tour guide jumped from his seat at a coffee shop and in an exaggerated motion stormed away. Then he turned on his heels to chew out the foreigner who had dared ask about reports that the North Korean leader had suffered a stroke.
“Kim Jong Il is my father, my grandfather, my family. How do you talk about my family that way?”
The topic is so taboo that a North Korean interpreter refused to translate a question about Kim’s health, her eyes wide and stricken, her mouth resolutely clamped shut.
One of the few North Koreans who said he wouldn’t mind answering questions, Choe Jong Hun of the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, simply dismissed any suggestion of a problem with a wave of his hand.
“There is no problem. . . . He is well. He is just working hard, that is all,” Choe said.
Kim has been conspicuously absent from public life for the last month. He was a no-show at celebrations Sept. 9 marking North Korea’s 60th anniversary, the first time the leader has missed such an important occasion. He didn’t appear at last week’s opening of the Pyongyang Film Festival.
Reports originating in South Korea and Japan that Kim suffered a stroke and is partially incapacitated have appeared around the world -- everywhere, that is, except in North Korea, where all foreign publications and broadcasts are strictly prohibited.
The state-controlled newspapers here carry daily accounts of the leader’s activities, which mostly involve receiving gifts and congratulations for the 60th anniversary.
There is no public indication of anything amiss. If anything, Pyongyang appears more festive than usual, with the film festival underway and nightly performances at Kim Il Sung Stadium by North Korea’s famous gymnasts.
It appears that ordinary people haven’t heard the reports of Kim being ill, and that the few who have are in denial.
Conspiracy of ‘evil people’
The official line of the ruling Workers’ Party is that the reports of ill health are a Western conspiracy, “spread by evil people who want to break up unity between the Koreas,” as Foreign Ministry official Hyon Hak Bong told reporters last week.
South Korean intelligence officials have told lawmakers in Seoul that the 66-year-old Kim is recovering from a stroke suffered in mid-August and is now able to perform simple tasks such as brushing his teeth.
Other reports suggest the damage is likely to be permanent and could impair his ability to govern.
Foreigners who attended the 60th anniversary celebrations say preparations seemed to be underway for an appearance by Kim and that his attendance was apparently canceled at the last minute, suggesting he may have suffered a setback.
The North Koreans “don’t talk about it, but they must be very worried,” said a Western diplomat in Beijing.
Kim, who inherited power after his father, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994, is part of a dynasty that practically defines North Korea.
“Without President Kim Jong Il, we can’t think about our country,” said tour guide Oh in a calmer moment.
“Marshal Kim Jong Il is the sun god of human history. . . . He is greater than George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson all put together.”
He then demanded: “How can you know more than me? I live in Pyongyang, like Marshal Kim Jong Il. I should know.”
North Koreans are taught to treat images of the Kims, father and son, as sacred.
Portraits of the two are mandatory in all North Korean homes, and people who fail to dust them regularly are fined.
Foreign visitors are advised upon their arrival in Pyongyang not to throw away any North Korean newspapers lest they despoil a photo of the leaders.
No obvious successor
“Don’t tear or crumble the newspaper. Don’t throw it in a dustbin. Don’t wrap something with it or use it for some other purpose,” warned guide Gil Hyun Ah, who said offenders would have to write formal letters of apology before being permitted to leave the country.
The same prohibitions against discussing Kim’s health apply to succession. It is unthinkable to talk about what will happen when he dies.
Kim has three sons, all of them considered unlikely successors. The two youngest sons are in their 20s; the oldest, 37-year-old Kim Jong Nam, was discredited after being arrested in 2001 trying to sneak into Japan on a fake passport to visit Disneyland.
That puts North Korea in a far more precarious situation than when Kim Il Sung died at the age of 82. Kim Jong Il had by that time been designated the successor for more than two decades and was essentially running the government.
This time, North Koreans are facing a future both unknowable and unspeakable.
At times, the fear seems palpable. But it is articulated only obliquely.
Out of earshot of other North Koreans, a young woman shyly asked, “You’ve heard about our problems, haven’t you?”