- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008

Senior members of the military and the Korean Workers’ Party have been ruling North Korea while their leader, Kim Jong-il, is incapacitated, and the nuclear-armed country is not likely to become unstable in the near future, U.S. intelligence officials and Korean specialists say.

Three U.S. officials and a former U.S. official who still works with North Korea said that Mr. Kim, 66, had been battling health problems for months before he suffered an apparent stroke last month, leaving day-to-day responsibilities to subordinates.

The leader’s sickness should not disrupt the internal politics in a nation accustomed to a poor economy and isolation.

“He doesn’t have a clear successor, and it’s entirely possible that there is some infighting within the North Korean elite,” said a U.S. intelligence official, who could not disclose his name because of the nature of his work. The intelligence official added, however, that senior North Korean party members follow the policies that Mr. Kim would have pursued and that although instability is possible, it is not likely “because he’s been ill for quite a while and other high-ranking party members are in control.”

“Even in the event of his death, there has been a support structure underneath him that has been running the North Korean government,” said the U.S. official, who had the same assessment as two other intelligence officials interviewed by The Washington Times.

The former U.S. official said Mr. Kim looked in poor health when he met in October with then-South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and did not accompany Mr. Roh to an annual extravaganza of athletics and propaganda in Pyongyang called the Arirang Games.

Because his illness was publicly disclosed in news reports Tuesday, some analysts have expressed concern that domestic developments in North Korea have caused it to stall over nuclear disarmament. Talks have come to an impasse because of a dispute between North Korea and the United States over how to verify the country’s nuclear programs. North Korea has complained that the Bush administration has not removed it from a State Department list of terrorism-sponsoring states despite a U.S. pledge to do so.

A senior Bush administration official told The Times that information regarding the rapid recovery of Mr. Kim is suspect.

“We’re going to talk with North Korean neighbors in the region to discuss the situation there; no one wants an unstable North Korea,” the official stated. “But it’s an opaque situation, and we have people analyzing every aspect of it.”

Jack Pritchard, a former Bush administration negotiator with North Korea who now heads the Korea Economic Institute, said the Bush administration “moved the goal posts” when it demanded that North Korea accept a plan to verify its nuclear activities before removing the country from the blacklist.

The North Koreans are angry, he said, and have stopped dismantling their nuclear program as they had promised to do under an agreement with the United States and the other four members of the so-called six-party talks - China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

“The actions that occurred after his health event are totally consistent with what he would have done,” Mr. Pritchard said.

Mike Chinoy, author of “Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis,” said that if Mr. Kim “were to die soon, you’d have some collective military-dominated leadership evoking Kim Jong-il and his father” to carry on with their policies.

“I think that the North Korean system, for all its awfulness, is more resilient than others give it credit for,” said Mr. Chinoy, who is also a senior fellow with the Pacific Council on International Policy, a nonpartisan think tank in Los Angeles. “As far as Kim’s three sons, there is no evidence that any groundwork has been laid publicly that the mantle will be passed to them. You have the military, the Korean Workers’ Party and then the family. There very well will be overlap.”

These “are the three groups to watch as news unfolds,” he said.

Mr. Kim’s eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, 37, fell out of favor with his father when he used a fake Dominican passport to enter Japan. Mr. Kim’s second son, Kim Jong-chul, 27, is reported to have studied in Switzerland and to have been appointed to a high position in the Korean Workers’ Party last year.

But Kenji Fujimoto, who says he was the private sushi chef to Mr. Kim for 13 years, claims the “Dear Leader” thinks the second son is too soft and instead favors his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, 24, who apparently looks and acts just like his father.

“If something happened to Kim, there are a lot of real issues here - what to do on the nuclear front, on the economic front,” Mr. Chinoy said. “The honest answer is, nobody really knows how any of these conflicting personalities will interact or play against each other.”

Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation in Washington, said he had been told that Mr. Kim suffered a stroke last month and was recovering but was not to the point where he could attend Tuesday’s ceremony on the 60th anniversary of the founding of North Korea.

Mr. Flake said he was “skeptical of the line that the military is in charge and that’s why we’re having these problems” over the North Korean nuclear program. “That’s too convenient and overanalyzing,” he said.

He acknowledged, however, that few outsiders have a firm grip over developments in North Korea.

“If there’s an opaque leadership in the world, it’s North Korea’s,” he said.

A former U.S. official dealing with Korea who asked not to be named because he held a sensitive position said he thinks that Mr. Kim is still in charge. “I don’t think anyone has made any decisions that go against his instructions,” the former U.S. official said.

The former official said he doubted that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons because they “don’t have any reason to trust anyone in the United States or the Russians or the Chinese.”

“They worked very hard to get these weapons. They are not going to become the first nuclear-weapons state to give them up.”

The former official said that if Mr. Kim were to die, it was possible that a collective leadership could replace him temporarily but that eventually one man would rise to power.

“My sense is, historically in both North and South Korea, collective leadership doesn’t work. Somebody will come up on top.”

Foreign doctors, possibly from China and France, performed an operation on Mr. Kim after he collapsed on or about Aug. 15, the newspapers Dong-a Ilbo and JoongAng Ilbo reported, citing unidentified government officials.

Mr. Kim’s condition has improved, and he is not suffering from slurred speech, a disability often associated with a stroke, the reports said.

However, South Korea’s largest newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, said the stroke had left Mr. Kim with “partial paralysis.” It quoted an unidentified senior government official as saying, “I understand that he is suffering inconvenience on the left part of his body.”

South Korea’s main spy agency did not comment to the Associated Press about reports of Mr. Kim’s paralysis, repeating a previous statement that the leader had much improved from an unspecified circulatory problem.

cThis article is based in part on wire service reports

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