- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2008

North Korea‘s dictator Kim Jong-il has suffered “serious” health-related complications within the past two weeks, leading to speculation over whether he will return as leader of the isolated nation, U.S. intelligence officials told The Washington Times on Tuesday.

“Kim Jong-il has suffered health setbacks, possibly including a stroke,” the official said on the condition of anonymity due to the nature of his work. “We believe it happened in the last several weeks.”

The 66-year-old leader known for his closed-door policy with the West and his rock-star lifestyle did not attend the nation’s 60th anniversary celebrations Tuesday, sparking inquiries into his health. In his place, Kim Yong-nam, the country’s second most senior figure, watched the military parade in the capital, Pyongyang.

Intelligence officials say it is too early to say who will replace Kim Jong-il if he does not recover. “There are a number of North Korean officials and members of Kim Jong-il’s family who may take his place,” one official said.

The anniversary celebration - the largest ever in North Korea - and the reported illness of the leader come as international efforts are under way to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.

North Korea’s state media was silent about Mr. Kim’s absence at the parade. His last reported public appearance was Aug. 12, the Associated Press reported.

A senior U.S. official told the AP that rumors had been circulating for weeks about the state of Mr. Kim’s health and his control over North Korea’s highly centralized government.

That official said the United States has no independent confirmation that Mr. Kim is ill, but that Mr. Kim’s absence lends credence to reports that he is suffering and may no longer be in a position to command the absolute authority he had wielded.

In a broadcast monitored in Seoul, Korean Central Television showed North Korea’s No. 2 leader and other officials atop a viewing stand on Tuesday. Mr. Kim was not shown.

The rumors began circulating in mid-August. Shortly thereafter, North Korea announced it was suspending the disablement of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, a key step in abandoning its atomic weapons program that it agreed to take in negotiations with China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States.

North Korea’s powerful military is known to have been opposed to the measure, and many analysts believed it was proceeding mainly due to Mr. Kim’s support for the process and the backing of moderates in his Foreign Ministry, the AP reported.

When North Korean diplomats notified their U.S. counterparts of the suspension, they did so in a note that explained the move was being taken “due to pressure from the relevant agencies,” according to people familiar with its contents.

Mr. Kim has held absolute power in the Stalinist regime, and the wording of the note set off alarms that his control over the disarmament scheme may be in question.

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