Will the real Kim Jong-il please stand up?
A number of analysts here are convinced that not all the photos being released of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il, are really photos of Kim Jong-il.
Instead, they say, a look-alike has been standing in for him on some of the 122 trips he's reportedly made this year to the countryside, factories, cultural events, military units, and all sorts of other venues.
Some observers say the North Korean leader is too ill to make all these appearances. One Japanese analyst claims President Clinton didn't meet with Kim Jong-il in August – he met with a Mr. Kim double.
The evidence of Kim stand-ins is far from verified, but several North Korean refugees here say that Kim has not one but several look-alikes playing his role.
Still, it's logical that for security reasons, Kim has one or more stand-ins, as did former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein before the US invasion in 2003. One argument is that Kim has no time for all those trips outside Pyongyang while his health remains uncertain and he's preparing his youngest son to take over as early as next year.
Ha Tae-young, president of Open Radio for North Korea, which broadcasts two hours a day via shortwave into North Korea, cites the word of one recent North Korean defector.
"He says he knows a girl whose father is the actor for Kim Jong-il," says Mr. Ha. "Recently Kim Jong-il loses fat. He's very skinny these days. The defector says, If Kim Jong-il looks skinny, the actor can do the same thing."
Some turn resemblance into acting career
Here in South Korea, there's a booming business in Kim Jong-il look-alikes. Dozens of people in recent years have portrayed Kim Jong-il in television comedy shows, nightclub routines, and serious movies and dramas.
After the inter-Korean summit of June 2000, in which Kim Jong-il received South Korea President Kim Dae-jung in Pyongyang, the South Korean government discouraged such satires for fear of upsetting reconciliation with the North.
Still, from time to time South Koreans delight in appearing on TV flaunting the curly-haired bouffant hairstyle, platform shoes, and protruding stomach for which the Dear Leader was known before he disappeared from view for months after reportedly suffering a stroke in August 2008.
The wave of public appearances reported by the North Korean propaganda machine since then to show he's in good health convinces some analysts that North Korean actors are portraying the Dear Leader, too – but in dead seriousness.
"That's possible," says Choi Jin-wook, senior fellow and specialist on North Korea at the Korea Institute of National Unification. "These dictators always need look-alikes for security reasons. Kim Jong-il is giving 'on-the-spot guidance' too often for his health."
Mr. Choi also says that North Korean photo editors are likely pasting in old pictures of Kim from previous times when he was in good health.
Did Clinton meet with look-alike?
No one here, however, is ready to go as far as Japanese writer Toshimitsu Shigemura, who has written two books and numerous articles claiming that Kim has been seriously ill for the past decade and may even have died.
Mr. Shigemura says that if the real Kim, looking wan and weak, appeared before the Supreme People's Assembly several days after North Korea fired a long-range missile on April 5, then it must have been a look-alike who hosted former US President Bill Clinton in August.
"They were totally different people," says Mr. Shigemura, a former correspondent for Mainichi Shimbun, a major Japanese newspaper, who now teaches international relations at Waseda University in Tokyo. "In August, he looked very healthy."
Shigemura suspects that a skilled actor delivered the lines to Mr. Clinton during their three-hour, 17-minute meeting, which ended with Mr. Clinton flying back to the US with two journalists who had been held for 140 days.
Shigemura is equally convinced that an actor played Kim in recent meetings with China's prime minister, Wen Jiabao, and the head of Hyundai Asan, the South Korean company responsible for developing special economic and tourist complexes in North Korea.
After the June 2000 summit, says Shigemura, Kim "was bedridden with diabetes" and "cannot walk by himself." He cites the names of three Japanese who claim to have met his look-alikes, including one who was told flatly, "I am a double."
One of them, a magician named Princess Tenko, Shigemura describes as a "close friend" of Kim, saw him more than once in visits to Pyongyang.
Some analysts here, however, have trouble with Shigemura's analysis.
"There have been such rumors," says Kim Tae-woo, a veteran North Korea specialist at the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses. "Dictators usually do that, but we don't know whether this is real or fake."
The North Korean leader's preoccupation these days, he says, is arranging the succession of his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, still in his late 20s.
Ryoo Kihl-jae, professor at the University of North Korean Studies, is dubious about such reports. Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law, Jang Song-taek, appears to be the most powerful figure after the Dear Leader, he says, "but his authority stems from Kim Jong-il" and two or three generals are vying for control.
For now, says Mr. Ryoo, Kim is "living well," and the reports of a double standing in for him are "just imagination."