September 9, 2008 / 2:30 AM / 11 years ago

Absence prompts doubt over N.Korean leader's health

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong-il failed to appear at a triumphal military parade on Tuesday celebrating his state’s 60th birthday, and a U.S. intelligence official said he may have suffered a stroke.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (C) visits a military unit at an undisclosed location in North Korea in this recent picture released by KCNA on August 16, 2008. REUTERS/KCNA

The parade and Kim’s absence came just as the reclusive communist state appeared to be backing away from a deal with major powers on reining in its nuclear program.

South Korea’s military said the North had been massing weapons for days to show them off in the parade in the capital Pyongyang which Kim, 66, would traditionally attend.

“It does appear that Kim Jong-il has suffered a health setback, potentially a stroke,” the U.S. intelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

She said there have been no signs of a change in governing power and that assessing whether Kim was still capable of governing would “call for a lot of speculation.”

South Korea’s largest daily, the Chosun Ilbo, earlier said Kim, who is suspected of suffering from chronic illness, collapsed last month. It cited a South Korean diplomatic source in Beijing.

The parade featured displays of armaments, legions of goose-stepping soldiers and tens of thousands of North Koreans shouting praises to Kim in unison, according to a North Korea state TV broadcast monitored in Seoul.

As leader, Kim attended the parades for the 50th and 55th anniversary of the state founded by his father Kim Il-sung, but North Korean and Chinese state media accounts of commemorative events made no mention of Kim’s presence this year.

Kim’s health is one of the most closely guarded secrets in the world’s first communist dynasty. Kim himself, at a summit with South Korea’s president in October 2007, dismissed persistent media speculation he was ill.

His demise, without a clear succession plan like the one under which Kim took power from his father in 1994, could compound the multiple troubles posed by his nuclear-armed, impoverished, repressive and often belligerent state.

CRISIS FOR US, NEIGHBORS?

North Korean media last reported a public appearance by Kim about a month ago. The U.S. intelligence official said the illness happened within the last couple of weeks, while other officials said Kim’s health had recently been a U.S. concern.

“We have had trouble getting answers out of Pyongyang for weeks now,” said one senior U.S. official.

Analysts and a U.S. congressional aide have cautioned not to read too much into public appearances — or nonappearances — by Kim, who can drop out of sight for months and then show up to tour a military base or farm.

Bruce Klingner, a former CIA Korea analyst, said the parade no-show added to a “new surge of rumors about Kim Jong-il’s health” that has included a Japanese scholar’s claim that Kim had already died and reports of Chinese doctors treating him.

“This may be a correct rumor, but, having followed so many rumors over the years of Kim’s incapacitation, death, assassination and coups, I can’t help but be skeptical,” said Klingner, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation think tank.

But the aide said Kim’s death or incapacitation would present a major foreign policy crisis for Washington. China, Japan and South Korea would likewise face a suspicious neighbor that has not unveiled a succession plan for Kim.

“There would be concern about an internal struggle, whether there would be instability, who is controlling the nuclear weapons, and whether a hard-liner would try to unite supporters by acting belligerently toward the outside world,” said Klingner.

Possible Pyongyang leadership scenarios range from rule by one of his three sons to collective rule by Kim’s relatives and technocrats to a military takeover, analysts say.

North Korea began taking apart its Soviet-era Yongbyon nuclear plant last November as called for in a disarmament-for-aid deal it struck with five regional powers.

Slideshow (11 Images)

But it stopped disabling Yongbyon in August, angered by Washington’s failure to drop the country from a U.S. terrorism blacklist. The United States said North Korea must first agree on a system to verify Pyongyang’s disclosures about its nuclear programs.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, asked about the possible stroke, said she had no information. Spokespersons at the State Department and the Pentagon said they also could not confirm the information.

“We’ve always said that North Korea is a very opaque society, one that is very hard to get information from, to get information about,” added Perino.

Additional reporting by Reuters Television and Chisa Fujioka in Tokyo and by Randall Mikkelsen, Sue Pleming and Paul Eckert in Washington; Writing by Randall Mikkelsen; Editing by Roger Crabb, Jerry Norton, David Storey and Jackie Frank

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