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.

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.

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."

Analysts worry that Kim has not selected a successor as did his father. The long-ruling Kim Il Sung put his son in charge of the powerful national defense commission well before his death in 1994.

Kim Jong Chul, the second of Kim's three sons, is widely seen as a strong possibility since he took charge of propaganda for the Korean Workers' Party, but generals may also want to assert authority.

"There would be great concern if Kim were to die or be incapacitated," says Bruce Klinger, a former CIA analyst, now at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "There would be concern over domestic instability, over who's got the nukes, and hostility with South Korea."

Despite North Korea's fluctuations between strongly worded attacks and willingness to negotiate, Kim is seen as a relatively stable influence.

"As long as Kim was there, alive and functional, there's more certainty, less instability," Mr. Klinger continues.

Some US officials look at past experience and say that, while it appears likely Kim is ill, it's possible the mercurial leader is making himself scarce to incite speculation on his health – and on the potential problems his absence could mean for the region. Kim has been known to disappear from the public stage in the past, especially when he is in a tight spot with the international community, as he is now over his nuclear program.

In recent months, both the US and North Korea have reverted to relatively hard-line positions. North Korea last month said it had resumed its nuclear program at its complex at Yongbyon.

The tougher rhetoric follows a flurry of optimism engendered by North Korea's coming up with a declaration of its nuclear inventory, as required by the agreement reached in six-party talks, although US officials believe it has processed more plutonium for warheads than it has acknowledged. In June North Korea blew up a cooling tower at Yongbyon in a much publicized event.

Although Kim Jong Il was not to be seen Tuesday, the tone from Pyongyang has hardened in the past few days. The titular head of government, Premier Kim Yong Il, in a ceremony Monday, vowed the country would "resolutely and mercilessly" counter "the smallest provocation." The Workers' Party newspaper Rodong Sinmun said there was "no limit to the ideological and mental power of the military and the people united firmly under their leader."

Howard LaFranchi contributed from the United Nations.

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