Speculation grows over Kim Jong-il’s health

Reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is gravely ill pose new uncertainties about the direction of the nuclear-armed, isolated nation, but could also be a ploy to get attention, U.S. officials and North Korea specialists said Tuesday.

Mr. Kim, 66, did not attend his nation’s 60th anniversary celebrations Tuesday. A U.S. intelligence official said the North Korean leader “has suffered health setbacks, possibly including a stroke.” The official, who asked not to be named because of the nature of his work, said, “We believe it happened in the last several weeks.”

A South Korean news report said Mr. Kim is alive but ill.

The Yonhap news agency cited an unidentified South Korean government official as saying Wednesday that Mr. Kim appeared to have suffered a collapse, a term in Korean normally used to indicate a grave illness such as a stroke, the Associated Press reported. However, the official said Mr. Kim is definitely still alive.

North Korea’s state media said nothing about Mr. Kim’s absence at the parade. However, a North Korean diplomat on Wednesday denied reports that Mr. Kim was ill, calling them a “conspiracy” by Western media, Japan’s Kyodo News reported from Pyongyang, according to Agence France-Presse.

“We see such reports as not only worthless, but rather as a conspiracy plot,” Song Il-ho, North Korea’s ambassador handling relations with Japan, told Kyodo News in Pyongyang’s first reaction to recent reports that Mr. Kim was ill.

“Western media have reported falsehood before,” he was quoted as saying.

South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported Tuesday that Mr. Kim collapsed on Aug. 22, citing an unnamed South Korean diplomat in Beijing who got the information from a Chinese source. Chinese officials declined to comment Tuesday.

Mr. Kim’s last reported public appearance was on Aug. 12, according to the Associated Press.

The reported illness comes as international efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program face new snags.

The Washington Times reported Tuesday that the Bush administration failed to seek North Korea’s agreement in writing to a plan to verify its nuclear activities before promising to take North Korea off a State Department blacklist of terrorist-sponsoring states. North Korea was not delisted last month as Pyongyang expected, and efforts to denuclearize the North —and upgrade U.S.-North Korean relations — are once again at a standstill.

Mike Chinoy, a veteran journalist and author of a new book, “The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis,” said it was possible that Mr. Kim deliberately chose not to appear Tuesday to draw attention to the nuclear impasse.

“He’s a pretty shrewd operator and would know that this would generate a lot of anxiety and put North Korea’s needs back into the spotlight,” Mr. Chinoy said.

Intelligence officials and Korea specialists could not predict who would replace Kim Jong-il if he is ill and does not recover.

Mr. Kim — known in North Korea as the “Dear Leader” — succeeded his father, Kim Il-sung, founder of the North Korean communist state, who died in 1994. The younger Mr. Kim has three sons, but none has been groomed openly to take power, as Mr. Kim was by his father. There is also the possibility that Mr. Kim’s brother-in-law, Chang Son-taek, might take over as a transitional leader.

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