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Flowers, but no sign of special North Korea broadcast

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s ministry responsible for ties with the North said on Monday no unusual activity was observed in North Korea on the day media said Pyongyang might make an important announcement.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il returns a salute as he reviews a military parade in Pyongyang in a 2005 photo. REUTERS/Korea News Service/Files

A source based in Beijing with access to North Korean officials rejected speculation about the health of leader Kim Jong-il, thought to have suffered a stroke in August, saying he was firmly in control of the reclusive state.

Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper said on Saturday North Korean diplomats had been told to stay close to their missions and await an important message, which could be about Kim’s health or ties with the South.

“We have nothing to confirm regarding chairman Kim Jong-il’s health,” Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon told a news briefing.

“All of the North’s domestic broadcasts, its international events and domestic events are being conducted normally.”

South Korean media quoted informed sources on Monday as saying the reports from Japan could be inaccurate. Yomiuri is a conservative but prominent daily with relatively well-placed sources on North Korea.

A source based in Beijing with close ties to the North’s government termed reports that Kim might have died “nonsense.”

“All along his health has not been very good. But there’s definitely no problem,” the source, requesting anonymity, told Reuters.

A South Korean intelligence source said Kim appeared to be recovering from a serious illness and remained in control of the country.

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North Korea’s state media maintained their total silence on rumors about Kim’s health.

The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that the nation’s cabinet had held a rare meeting to discuss its budget and the economy but made no mention of Kim attending.

Striking a typically reverential note, KCNA also reported on what it called a scientific breakthrough in prolonging the life of the kimjongilia flower, a bright red begonia hybrid developed to honor the nation’s Dear Leader.

“According to the users, the agent makes it possible to keep the flower in fresh state for a long time without giving any hindrance to its growth so as to open the immortal flower more wonderfully,” the report waxed lyrically.

North Korean television, meanwhile, showed a program explaining to children how to play children’s games.

CONFUSION

Kim’s health became the subject of speculation after he failed to appear last month at a military parade marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the communist state.

His health is closely watched by officials and investors because his death without a clear successor would likely throw the North into confusion that could quickly be followed by collapse.

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Analysts say a collective leadership could be set up with a figurehead, possibly one of his three known sons, his brother-in-law, or one of the top leaders loyal to him. Any post-Kim regime would almost certainly be dominated by the army.

Earlier this month North Korean state media reported that Kim had watched a soccer game and later released photographs of him inspecting military units. These were the first official reports of Kim making a public appearance in about 50 days.

The pictures fueled more questions about his health because experts in the South said they appeared to have been taken at least a few months ago, before U.S. and South Korean intelligence officials said that Kim might have suffered a stroke in August.

Last week, the North threatened to cut all ties with the South, a major source of aid and cash, in anger at the hardline policies of the new conservative president in Seoul.

North Korea stands this year to lose about $1 billion in aid from the South, roughly equal to about 5 percent of its annual economy, due to a chill in ties with its rich neighbor, a South Korean government official said.

A sharp increase in tension between the two Koreas could cause problems for the South by increasing its perceived political risk and making it more expensive for its companies to raise funds internationally at a time when the economy is already wobbling in the global financial crisis.

Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim in BEIJING and Jon Herskovitz in SEOUL; Editing by Paul Tait and Roger Crabb

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