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North Korea: Kim Jong Il's absence sparks concern as nuclear deal stalls

The leader, who missed Tuesday's celebration of his country's 60th anniversary, has periodically been reported ill. But the speculation this time assumes greater urgency.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 10, 2008


North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il failed to appear at a ceremony and parade marking the country's 60th anniversary Tuesday, sparking concern about his ability to govern while North Korea pursues an increasingly hard line on its nuclear weapons program.

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Kim has periodically been reported ill during absences from view. But the speculation this time assumes greater urgency, as North Korea stonewalls on terms for a protocol to verify compliance on giving up its nuclear weapons program, saying the US must first remove North Korea from its list of states sponsoring terrorism.

"We're at a bit of an impasse now," says Evans Revere, president of the Korea Society in New York, but "whether it has anything to do with reports [of Kim's illness] is a matter of speculation."

Reports persisted Wednesday despite a denial from Pyongyang. “There are no problems,” said Kim Yong Nam, the second-ranking leader. In Seoul, though, a government official said Kim had apparently collapsed but that his condition was not life threatening. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing lawmakers who had been briefed by the South’s National Intelligence Service, reported that Kim had suffered either a stroke or a cerebral hemorrhage but remains conscious.

Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's biggest-selling daily newspaper, quoted a South Korean diplomat in Beijing as saying that a team of Chinese doctors had gone to Pyongyang to care for him after he collapsed on Aug. 22.

A US official in Washington, talking anonymously, said there was "reason to believe" that Kim had suffered "a serious health setback, possibly a stroke."

The mystery is heightened by official silence from North Korea. The media there carried no reports about the anniversary observance, though North Korean state TV showed soldiers marching in tight formations through Pyongyang as senior officials watched. The parade was considerably lower key than the massive display of military might that was expected to exceed the displays put on for previous anniversaries.

Mr. Revere, a longtime US diplomat in Korea, shares the frustration of many analysts trying to assess the veracity of reports on Kim's health. "Who knows," he asks. "That's the problem. We're dealing with this big black hole there."