SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong-il failed to attend the funeral of one of the most senior members of the communist state, the South said on Friday, adding to speculation about the health of the reclusive leader.
Kim, 66, was thought to have suffered a stroke in August. He has attended funerals for lower ranking members of the communist state before and his absence from this week’s funeral of an old-guard cadre who served with his father raises questions if he is fit enough to appear in public.
“Chairman Kim Jong-il is confirmed not to have attended the funeral,” Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon said at a news conference.
A debilitated Kim, who was conspicuously absent from gala ceremonies in September to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his state’s founding, raises questions about leadership in Asia’s only communist dynasty and who was making decisions concerning its nuclear arsenal, analysts have said.
North Korea’s elite turned out for the funeral earlier this week of Pak Song-chol, 95, the last of what the state considers its great, original communist revolutionaries. Pak played key roles under state founder, and Kim Jong-il’s father, Kim Il-sung.
Pak was given high posts from the 1950s to the 1970s and due to a carefully maintained ranking system based on a mix of seniority and status, was still among the North’s top five cadres even though he has not been active for about 30 years.
According to the North’s official media, Kim Jong-il has attended funerals for officials lower on the pecking order than Pak. Kim appeared at the 2005 ceremony for Yon Hyong-muk, who was in the top 20 at the time of his death.
This week, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso said intelligence indicated that Kim was probably in hospital but still in control of the state. The South’s spy chief said Kim was on the mend and still calling the shots.
Earlier this month, the North’s official media made its first reports in about 50 days of Kim appearing in public, saying he attended a soccer match and inspected a women’s military unit.
But experts in the South said pictures the North released of the military visit were likely taken several months ago, and before Kim’s suspected illness.
Additional reporting by Jack Kim and Kim Junghyun; Editing by Nick Macfie