October 5, 2008

South Korea Yet to Verify North Korean Leader’s Reappearance

Text of report in English by South Korean news agency Yonhap

[Yonhap headline: "S. Korea Yet To Verify N. Korean Leader's Reappearance"]

Seoul, Oct. 5 (Yonhap) - Seoul officials said Sunday [ 5 October] they have yet to verify a report that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il [Kim Cho'ng-il] has made a public appearance amid speculations that his health is failing.

"We cannot trust North Korean media reports 100 per cent, but they could be true," a South Korean intelligence official said, requesting anonymity.

"We have been monitoring reports since the announcement, but cannot confirm it."

Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported [KPP20081004971039] Saturday that Kim watched a college football [soccer] match, without specifying the venue. If the report is accurate, it would be Kim's first public appearance in 51 days. His long absence fanned suspicions that he had suffered a stroke.

North Korean media have been rebroadcasting the report regularly [KPP20081004032001].

"It might be true or false," the official said. "Recently there have been many speculations on Kim's health. The (KCNA) report might be intended to demonstrate that Kim is in good health, or wage a kind of psychological warfare against South Korea."

Earlier Sunday, Washington-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) said that North Korea's report on the leader's appearance is likely aimed at preventing public alienation.

"Kim Jong Il [Kim Cho'ng-il] and other top North Korean officials seem to have concluded that Kim's long absence due to his illness should not be continued," the broadcaster quoted an anonymous Chinese official as saying.

The RFA, monitored in Seoul, said the Chinese official had recently visited North Korea and met with Kim Yong Nam [Kim Yo'ng- nam], the country's No 2 leader who serves as chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly. The official made the comments in a meeting with Chinese businessmen who engage in trade with North Korea, according to RFA.

"Public sentiment towards the North Korean government is worse than ever," he was quoted as saying. He added that food rations were suspended for a long time this year in Pyongyang, unlike during the food crisis in the mid-1990s when food was still distributed.

The sense of alienation among Pyongyang's residents most likely placed heavy burden on the North Korea leader, forcing him to emerge, the official said.

South Korean analysts saw Kim's reported appearance as a message that the leader's health is sound and that he would soon return to his duties.

"The report of his appearance came just before Oct. 10, which is the founding anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party. It seems to be a signal to the North Korean people as well as South Korea and the rest of the world that Kim Jong Il [Kim Cho'ng-il] is still well and sound and will be back," said Kim Keun-sik, a North Korea expert at Kyungnam University.

However, he added, "it seems that Kim is not able to appear in broadcasts as he did in the past, suggesting that the North Korean government may be 'managing' the situation,"

Paik Hak-soon, a specialist at the Sejong Institute, agreed saying: "The report (of his appearance) was aimed at calming the North Korean people who were worried or curious about the leader's health."

"I expect that there will be follow-up reports on Kim Jong Il [Kim Cho'ng-il]'s on-site inspections or visits," he said.

Paik noted that no abnormality or disorder has been detected in the North Korean regime, even after rumours circulated of a power shift due to Kim's illness.

Kim's 51-day absence from the public eye is the longest since 2003 when Pyongyang broke awayfrom the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Kim did not have any reported public engagements for 49 days that year.

The outside world, including South Korea, has watched North Korea's moves intently since reports surfaced that its leader was in poor health. Observers were especially concerned with how the development would affect recent denuclearization efforts.

In 2007, North Korea signed an aid-for-denuclearization deal with the Unit ed States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. It began disabling its Yongbyon nuclear complex late last year in anticipation of one million [metric] tons of fuel aid.

But Pyongyang recently backtracked from the deal, blaming the US for refusing to remove the North from a terrorism blacklist despite its submission of a nuclear declaration and destruction of a cooling tower at Yongbyon in June.

Kim's reappearance came shorty after the US's top nuclear envoy wrapped up a visit to Pyongyang, where he discussed the denuclearization process and tried to talk the North out of restarting its plutonium-producing reactor.

Originally published by Yonhap news agency, Seoul, in English 0604 5 Oct 08.

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