Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Il health, 60th anniversary of the founding of North Korea
Xinhua, Yao Dawei, File/AP
Kim Jong Il

Kim Jong Il Apparently Seen at Mass Public Assembly

December 30, 2008 10:59 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
According to North Korean state news sources, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il appeared at a public event, the first time since his assumed stroke in August. But does his health permit his full control?

Kim Jong Il Out and About, But His Health Is in Doubt

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il apparently attended a concert, marking what would be his first major public outing since his absence at festivities celebrating the country's 60 years of independence in early September, which in turn prompted speculation that he had recently suffered a stroke. According to state media reports released Monday cited by Reuters, his appearance was rewarded by a jubilant crowd.

"When he appeared in the auditorium, the whole audience broke into the rousing cheers of 'hurrah!' and enthusiastically welcomed him," North Korean state news agency KCNA reported.

The report did not mention the exact date of the concert, however a member of South Korea's Unification Ministry, which monitors the state of affairs in North Korea, said that it was Kim's first major appearance since his suspected stroke.

Intelligence sources from South Korea, the United States and China generally agree that Kim Jong Il retains a grip on power in the secretive country, and reports of his public appearances are not mere window dressing.

Yet Kim's apparent stroke has reminded analysts that the leader is aging. In case of a possible North Korean power struggle, some bordering countries have begun to formulate contingency plans. One such nation is China, which "already has begun to act in anticipation of Kim's potential sudden demise," writes military intelligence service Stratfor. "In recent months, Beijing has enhanced the number of troops along the Chinese-North Korean border, supplementing the forces Beijing put in place in 2003 when China worried that the United States would set its sights on North Korea after having declared 'mission accomplished' in Iraq."

Background: Absence leads to reports of stroke

North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il did not attend festivities marking the 60th anniversary of the country’s declaration as an independent state Sept. 9. Kim Yong-Nam, the country’s second-in-command, took his place, directing the televised military parades venerating the state and the absent leader.

Kim’s absence led to wild speculation about his health, including rumors that he had died. Reports suggested that Kim suffered either a stroke or cerebral hemorrage a few weeks before, according to the International Herald Tribune. South Korean media reported that foreign doctors performed brain surgery on Kim after he collapsed on Aug. 15. Kim, who is in his late 60s, has diabetes and heart disease.

International intelligence indicated in October that the North Korean leader was in the hospital but he was probably still actively ruling the country then, said Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso.

“I think intelligence of various nations shares the understanding that while his health is not good, it is unlikely that he can’t make any decisions, and that there will be other moves,” he told a parliament panel, according to Reuters.

In October, Japan’s Fuji Television showed video of a French brain surgeon who said that Kim’s eldest son had sought his services.

The same week, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made similar remarks as Aso when he said that Kim still held power in his country, according to Reuters.

Earlier in October, North Korean media released photos of Kim appearing in public for the first time in almost two months. But analysts claimed that the photos were old, raising more questions about the leader’s condition.
But North Korean authorities were quick to deny that Kim has had any grave health problems. The International Herald Tribune cited Kyodo News Agency quoting a senior North Korean diplomat as saying, “We see such reports as not only worthless, but rather as a conspiracy plot.”

The tight-lipped nature of state media and Kim’s absence have reignited conspiracy theories as to who is actually running North Korea. North Korea expert Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University, told Asia Times on Sept. 10, “chances are high that Kim has already died,” saying the leader passed sometime during autumn 2003 and four body doubles have been governing in his place. Other analysts surmised that Kim Jong Il was but a figurehead to the outside world while someone else held the real power.

According to reports, Kim has not named a successor, leaving experts to speculate on the country’s possible fates—including military takeover and even civil war—in the event of Kim’s death. In contrast, Kim was tapped to succeed to his father, Kim Il Sung, more than a decade before taking power.

Key Player: Kim Jong Il

There are conflicting reports as to the North Korean leader’s date and place of birth. A state-endorsed biography of the “Dear Leader,” writes that Kim Jong Il was born on Feb. 16, 1942, on Mt. Packtul in Korea. However, Western researchers put his date of birth as 1941 and the place of birth as somewhere near Khabarovsk, Siberia. Kim joined the Korean Worker’s Party in 1961 and was chosen as the successor to his father, “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, in the early 1980s. Kim Jong Il became North Korea’s leader in 1998, four years after his father’s death. His official title is chairman of the National Defense Commission.

Opinion & Analysis: What will happen to North Korea after Kim Jong Il?

According to intelligence sources, Kim Jong Il has not been preparing any of his three sons to take the helm after his death. Due to the subsequent perceived weakness of the likely heirs to the country’s top office, “American officials tend to gravitate toward theories that a military committee might take over the country,” writes the International Herald Tribune.

A military putsch would mark destabilization unwanted by North Korea’s neighbors as much as Western observers, however. Analysts from British consultancy Control Risks Group told Time magazine that “the regime’s brutal authoritarianism may be repugnant, but its unraveling would raise questions the North’s neighbors would much rather postpone.”

A civil war would aggravate North Korea’s already dire famine and weaken infrastructure, as well as possibly sending masses of refugees into South Korea and China. An outcome Beijing would find particularly dire would be a war in which American forces would have to intercede to watch over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.

Related Topic: "Balloon Propaganda Strains North-South Korea Relations"

South Korean activists launching leaflet-filled balloons into North Korea have angered the North Korean government and drawn criticism from the South Korean government. For the past five years, South Korean activists, including members of the Representatives of the Abductees Family Union and North Korean defectors, have launched balloons carrying leaflets into North Korea. The leaflets display messages critical of the North Korean government and encourage North Koreans to defect.

North Korea, which made little attempt to stop prior balloon campaigns, has responded angrily to the leaflets concerning Kim’s health. On Nov. 12, it threatened to close the border between the two countries beginning on Dec. 1 if the South Korean government did not stop the balloons.   

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