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

What Does Kim Jong Il’s Health Mean for North Korea?

September 10, 2008 01:09 PM
by Anne Szustek
Reports that North Korea’s “Dear Leader” suffered a stroke in August have raised questions about who will succeed him and how it will affect the country.

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 Tuesday. 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. Latest reports suggest that Kim Jong Il suffered either a stroke or cerebral hemorrage a few weeks ago. South Korean media reported on Thursday that foreign doctors performed brain surgery on Kim after he collapsed on Aug. 15. Kim, who is in his late 60s, has chronic diabetes and heart disease, South Korean intelligence services told the International Herald Tribune.

South Korean paper Yonghap News reported that, according to South Korean intelligence services, Kim is “quickly recovering” in a Pyongyang hospital. “Although Kim is not fit enough for outside activity, he is conscious and able to control affairs,” Won Hye-Young, the parliamentary floor head of South Korea’s leading opposition party, told Yonghap News. Time magazine reported on Thursday that, according to a radio interview with South Korean lawmaker Lee Cheol-woo, Kim is in fast recovery and has “no problem speaking and communicating” and is “able to stand if assisted.” The International Herald Tribune also reported earlier this week that South Korean legislators heard from intelligence authorities that Kim is well enough to walk and talk.

But North Korean authorities were quick to deny that Kim has had any grave health problems. The International Herald Tribune cites Kyodo News Agency quoting 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, “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 surmise that Kim Jong Il is but a figurehead to the outside world while someone else holds 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.

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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 hiss 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.

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