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Still kicking: Dictators make rounds

- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2009

They're tanned, they're fit -- well, they're upright, anyway. A pair of world leaders who have been missing in action for many months surfaced Friday, just in time for a post-inaugural audience and a new administration in Washington.

Rumors of their demise have been greatly exaggerated. And there are pictures to prove it.

It's a double billing, starring former Cuban President Fidel Castro in a slick Adidas tracksuit with a very comely lady escort Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. And as a kind of grand bonus, the planet was treated to photographs of North Korean President Kim Jong-il in his Fred Astaire mode. He's shaking hands, he's offering a toast, he's charming.

Both men had been rumored to be gravely ill, dead, sick, depressed, bedridden or in a persistent vegetative state; the hair-raising scenarios were many.

But they appear pretty chipper, and their press attaches were obviously on the ball. Timing is everything.

The office of President Kirchner released the photo of Mr. Castro Friday, two days after the pair reportedly met in Havana.

The former Cuban dictator looked well and received Mrs. Kirchner on his feet "like a gentleman," she said in the aftermath.

It is the first released photo of the octogenarian since an image showed him in a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in November. Mr. Castro essentially left the public stage in 2006 after surgery, handing over the presidency to his brother, Raul, in 2008.

In conjunction with the new photo, the former leader also had a message for his people.

"I'm well, but I insist that no one should feel obligated by my ailing health or my death," the elder Castro wrote Friday in Granma, the nation's state-run newspaper, hinting that he would not be around for the long term.

He also praised the sincerity of President Obama, though he also offered some cautionary talk.

"Despite all the tests he has been put through, Obama has not faced the most important of all. What will he do when the immense power he has grasped soon proves to be totally useless in overcoming the intractable, opposing contradictions of the [capitalist] system?" Mr. Castro asked.

Meanwhile, a seemingly buoyant Kim Jong-il met with a Chinese envoy in Pyongyang on Friday. The moment was closely documented by state news photographers from both North Korea and China. For months, unconfirmed rumors that the communist leader had suffered a stroke last summer had circulated in the press and among some intelligence analysts in South Korea.

He seemed remarkably upbeat in the photos with Wang Jiarui, chief of the International Department of the Communist Party of China, who hand-delivered a cordial letter of "spring festival greetings" from Chinese President Hu Jintao, according to Xinhua, China's official news agency.

But Mr. Kim had news of his own.

"The North Korean side will commit itself to the denuclearization of the North Korean Peninsula, and hopes to co-exist peacefully with other involved parties," the leader said, according to Xinhua. "North Korea is not willing to see tensions emerge in the peninsula, and is willing to strengthen consultation and cooperation with China to push forward the six-party talks."

Insiders say that the event is weighty indeed. The new White House administration, apparently, is quite a draw for both countries.

"The meeting appears to be aimed at telling Obama that Mr. Kim has no problem with his health and is well enough to meet with Obama's envoy," Kim Yong-hyun, an analyst at Seoul's Dongguk University, told the Associated Press.