September 10, 2008

North Korean Dictator’s Failure to Attend Parade Fuels Stroke Claims

By Andrew Buncombe

SPECULATION IS mounting that Kim Jong-Il, the leader of North Korea, is gravely ill. A US intelligence official said it appeared that the secretive head of state had suffered a stroke, but did not reveal the source of her evidence.

The reports intensified after the man known as the "Dear Leader" failed to appear at yesterday's celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the communist state. He would normally have been expected to attend.

"It does appear that Kim Jong-il has suffered a health setback, potentially a stroke," said the official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Reports from South Korea suggested that Mr Kim, 66, was taken ill late last month and was still not well enough to appear in public. Another report, quoting an unnamed official in Beijing, said this was why Mr Kim missed the parade, which was scaled down and featured a civil defence unit and Korean citizens.

In sharp contrast, Mr Kim - who came to power when his father, Kim Il-sung, died in 1994 - attended both of the elaborate parades for North Korea's 50th and 55th anniversaries, which included displays of military hardware. "It is unclear what but something unusual seems to be transpiring," said an announcer on the South Korean channel MBC.

In Mr Kim's the absence, those who took part in yesterday's marchpast had to make do by offering a statement of loyalty to their leader. The main ruling bodies, including the Workers' Party, the cabinet and the military, said he had built a "powerful war deterrent that can safeguard the nation's survival".

It added: "If the American imperialists dare ignite the flames of war, we will mobilise all our powerful potentials to mercilessly punish the invaders and win decisively in our great showdown against the United States."

It is not surprising that the condition of Mr Kim, who is said to have diabetes and a chronic heart condition, should be the focus of such intense speculation. If he really is in failing health - and there was no confirmation of the American claims last night - it could add further uncertainty to the relationship with one of the world's most isolated and unpredictable regimes.

The claims about Mr Kim's health come as relations between North Korea and the West are at a stalemate. Last November, in what was seen as a diplomatic coup for the Bush administration, Pyongyang agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons programmes in return for economic and political rewards from the US and its allies.

North Korea promptly began disabling its Soviet-era nuclear plant in Yongbyon, north of the capital. But last month the dismantling process stopped when North Korea complained that Washington had still not removed it from its official terrorism blacklist. It was said that the decision to halt the closure of the plant was taken by the country's powerful military establishment, which had always opposed the deal brokered with the US, Russia, Japan, South Korea and China.

When North Korean diplomats notified their US counterparts of the suspension, they did so in a note that explained the move was being taken "due to pressure from the relevant agencies". Yesterday in Washington, the US official who claimed Mr Kim might be ill, added: "What we do know is that he was not at the military parade. That is quite unusual and reinforces a lot of what we've been hearing."

Last month, a Japanese academic, Professor Toshimitsu Shigemura, claimed Mr Kim died in late 2003 and had since then been replaced at public appearances by one or more stand-ins.


Originally published by By Andrew Buncombe Asia Correspondent.

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