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Speculation grows over Kim Jong-il’s health

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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.

Michael Kulma, a Korea specialist at the Asia Society, said the fact that Mr. Kim did not appear in public Tuesday was not necessarily an indication that he was incapacitated.

"There have been times in the past where he has gone missing, or fallen off the radar for up to a month at a time," Mr. Kulma said. "But this may be different. ... He is getting older, has diabetes and heart problems, and each of these grows more serious over time."

Mr. Kim is known for his enjoyment of good food and wine. His former sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto, was quoted by Bradley Martin in his book, "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader," as saying that Mr. Kim had a wine cellar with 10,000 bottles in it and a fondness for shark's fin soup.

The issue of succession is a major concern.

Mr. Chinoy said there were "question marks" about all of Mr. Kim's three sons. "This is not a good time to have leadership uncertainty in North Korea," he said.

A former U.S. official who dealt with North Korea and remains well-informed about the country said that rumors of Mr. Kim's ill-health "seem a bit more intense than those of previous years."

"That still doesn't mean they are true," he said.

The former official, who asked not to be named because he still has dealings with the North Koreans, said the United States should keep in mind that North Korea has remained "a remarkably stable place over the years, despite its erratic, dangerous and occasionally self-defeating policies," including a famine that killed perhaps 2 million of the country's 22 million people in the 1990s.

"Kim Jong-il's health has not been good over the years, and one can't help but think that the North Koreans, who prize the preservation of their system above all else, would have made plans to ensure that they would be able to put in place the new leadership that would allow them to do so. However, someday, perhaps soon, we will have to deal with the demise of the North Korean leader," the former official said.

"This raises the question about whether our mutual isolation has left us more ignorant of the developments in the North than we should be, and less able to, perhaps, control events by reaching out to the next generation of leaders than we ought to be."

  • Betsy Pisik at the United Nations and Barbara Slavin in Washington contributed to this article.

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