SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea dismissed reports on Wednesday that leader Kim Jong-il might be seriously ill, a development that could trigger a power shift in Asia’s only communist dynasty.
Speculation grew after the reclusive 66-year-old leader, widely believed to suffer from debilitating illnesses, failed to appear at a parade on Tuesday to mark the 60th anniversary of his nation’s founding. A U.S. intelligence official said he might have suffered a stroke.
“(There is) no problem,” North Korea’s nominal number two leader, Kim Yong-nam, told Japan’s Kyodo news agency in Pyongyang.
Senior North Korean diplomat Song Il-ho told Kyodo earlier: “We see such reports as not only worthless, but rather as a conspiracy plot.”
The health concerns come just as the North appears to be going back on a deal with major powers to scrap a program to develop nuclear weapons in return for massive financial aid and a chance to be accepted into the rest of the world.
South Korean parliamentarians said after a briefing by the country’s spy chief that Kim had suffered a stroke but his condition was under control.
“He is not gravely ill,” one ruling party lawmaker was quoted as saying by Yonhap news agency.
Kim’s death would create huge uncertainty over leadership in a country whose deep distrust of the outside world is backed by one of the globe’s largest standing armies and which probably has atomic weapons.
The North has threatened to turn its wealthy neighbor in the south to dust and considers Japan and the United States as mortal enemies.
Kim’s health and possible successor are two of Pyongyang’s most closely guarded secrets.
South Korea said in a 2006 intelligence report that when Kim died, it expected the North Korean government to lapse into a brief coma and then hunker down with top military officials battling for power, perhaps in partnership with one of Kim’s three known sons.
Though a U.S. intelligence official said on Tuesday that Kim may have suffered a stroke, the White House issued no information. “I’m still unable to provide you any comment on reports about the leader of North Korea’s health,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters.
She did say, without elaborating, that some comments attributed to Kim Yong-nam, whom she called Pyongyang’s “second-in-command,” seemed to be “positive” signs for multilateral talks over the North Korean nuclear program.
Kim, whom state media calls the Dear Leader, was groomed for years to succeed his father and the North’s founding president Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994.
This time there is no clear heir and many analysts say the ruling hierarchy is riven by factionalism dividing those who want to continue a hard line against the West and others who see even a little reform as the only way to drag the country out of abject poverty.
The mystery surrounding Kim also leaves a frightening question mark for South Korea, for which a worst-case scenario would be the collapse of the North, leaving it facing social chaos that could wreck Asia’s fourth largest economy.
President Lee Myung-bak called a hurried meeting with senior aides. His unification minister called the situation “odd” but warned against any premature conclusions.
“It is definitely a very delicate time for North Korea in many respects,” Kim Ha-joong told parliamentarians.
Analysts, too, cautioned against reading too much into the absence of the North Korean leader, who often disappears from a fawning state media for long stretches.
MISSES GOOSE-STEPPING SOLDIERS
But others said that given the importance the North placed on the anniversary it was surprising Kim was not on show at the parade featuring columns of goose-stepping soldiers.
“In North Korea or China national anniversaries, especially the 10-year anniversaries, are big events, and for him not to appear suggests something is wrong,” said Cai Jian, an expert on Korea at Fudan University in Shanghai.
South Korean markets, hardened to speculation about the hermit state, showed little reaction. But investors said the news was a reminder of the risks of living next door to North Korea, whose proximity keeps the South’s credit rating a few levels below where it might normally expect to be.
“If Kim is indeed gravely ill or even worse, dead, this cannot be good for the market in the short-term, as political instability and uncertainties on the North will heighten South Korea’s geopolitical risks,” said Lee Kyoung-su of Taurus Investment & Securities.
Additional reporting by Park Jung-youn in Seoul, Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo, Chris Buckley in Beijing and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and David Fogarty