North Korea Leader's Absence Spurs Stroke Rumors

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has apparently suffered a stroke, according to U.S. intelligence officials. Kim didn't appear Tuesday at a military parade in Pyongyang on the 60th anniversary of North Korea's founding.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

North Korea held a military parade today. Nothing especially unusual about that, but what was unexpected was the country's leader wasn't there to see it. President Kim Jong Il rarely misses a major ceremonial event, and his absence today has triggered speculation that he may be seriously ill.

NPR's Tom Gjelten has been speaking to U.S. intelligence officials about these developments, and he joins me now. Hi, Tom.

TOM GJELTEN: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: What's the basis for the idea the Kim Jong Il might be sick?

GJELTEN: Well, Robert, actually, there have been a whole series of reports over the last month or so. He hasn't been seen in public during this period, and that's led to speculation that he may, in fact, be ill. And then when he didn't show up for this parade today, that was what really sort of tipped the balance in the sense.

This is called Founder's Day today in North Korea. This is the 60th anniversary of the day the North Korean state was founded. This is the type of event, as you said, that Kim Jong Il would definitely be at. I actually saw one report about Kim's health last night before this parade, and it called attention to the fact this parade is going to be held today.

And it said, if Kim did not show up today, it would mean something was definitely wrong. And in fact, a senior U.S. intelligence official has told me that Kim apparently suffered a stroke some time in the last few weeks. Another intel source told me that the level of confidence on this assessment is fairly high.

One other thing. There is a report in the Korean Press today quoting a Korean diplomat saying that Kim actually collapsed at an event on August 22nd, and a couple of people told me today that that report is solid.

SIEGEL: I assume you mean a South Korean.

GJELTEN: A South Korean report.

SIEGEL: South Korean report, obviously. Let's face it. What's most intriguing about this whole story is not just that when he's absent, people draw inferences from that, but there are times when we thought that Kim Jong Il was present, and some people suspect, well, maybe that wasn't Kim Jong Il.

GJELTEN: Well, there have been reports that Kim, just like his father, used a double. Of course, remember this from Iraq as well. It used to be said about Saddam Hussain. But I spoke to an intelligence official today who's very familiar with this region. He sort of poo-pooed that idea.

SIEGEL: Killing the best part of the story right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GJELTEN: I'm afraid so.

SIEGEL: What do we know about the people who might succeed Kim Jong Il if, in fact, he is seriously ill.

GJELTEN: Well, you first have to talk about his two oldest sons, Kim Jong Nam and Kim Jong Chol. But there are big questions about both of them. I don't know if you remember, Robert, Kim Jong Nam, his oldest son, showed up in Tokyo a few years ago on a forged passport from the Dominican Republic. And the Japanese press said he was on his way to a sexual massage parlor.

This intel official that I spoke to today said, again, in reference to Saddam Hussein and his two playboy sons, he said Saddam's sons would look like Harvard grads next to Kim's two oldest sons. So I don't know what kind of successors they would be.

SIEGEL: I assume they would be the inevitable generals or heads of security services...

GJELTEN: Well, the North Korean military is extremely powerful, very important. And, in fact, if there were determination at the leadership level that these two sons were not qualified to be a successor, I think you could expect to see some kind of military junta.

SIEGEL: This report comes in the midst of the six party talks over North Korea's nuclear program. If, in fact, Kim is seriously ill, what might that mean for the outcome of the efforts to get his government to abandon nuclear weapons?

GJELTEN: Well, Robert, those talks seemed to have been stalemated in the last few weeks. In fact, North Korea is recently been threatening to restart its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which it had previously agreed to shutdown. And there has been speculation that the North Korean government was hoping to get a better deal out of this six party talks, perhaps more food aid or other aid.

But now, in the context of this report of Kim's illness, we have to also consider the possibility that the military command is feeling ascendant, and they have been known to be very cool to this whole idea of disarmament.

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North Korea's 'Dear Leader' Proves Toughness

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il i i

hide captionNorth Korean leader Kim Jong Il reviews the honor guard during a welcoming ceremony in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Oct. 2, 2007.

AFP/Getty Images
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il

South Korea's President, Roh Moo-Hyun, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il review the honor guard during a welcoming ceremony in Pyongyang, North Korea on Oct. 2, 2007.

AFP/Getty Images

The speculation over whether Kim Jong Il is incapacitated is just another example of the secrecy that surrounds the North Korean leader.

North Korea watchers have had to judge Kim's status largely by rumors and by his absence from key events, rather than from any North Korean government information.

Seen by many in the West as an eccentric, comic figure seeking to stand taller with his pompadour of black hair and platform shoes, Kim Jong Il has surprised observers by grasping power as firmly as his father, known as "The Great Leader."

A Mythic Biography

Secrecy and propaganda have characterized many aspects of Kim's biography. Even his birth information is disputed. Soviet records show that Kim Jong Il was born in Siberia in February 1941, when his father, Kim Il Sung, commanded a battalion of Korean and Chinese exiles in the Soviet Army.

Kim Jong Il's official biography puts his birth a year later, at a guerrilla camp on Korea's highest mountain. The biography also says Kim's birth was heralded by various portents of future greatness, including the appearance of a double rainbow and a new star in the sky.

The official biography says Kim received his early education in schools in Pyongyang, but some authorities say it's more likely that he was educated in China, as a way of keeping him safe during the Korean War.

Rising Through Party Ranks

While his father built a powerful cult of personality, the younger Kim held a variety of posts in the ruling Korean Workers Party, often as an enforcer of his father's ideology. He helped consolidate the party's control over the North Korean military and oversaw the production of propaganda materials, especially movies.

By 1982, Kim Jong Il held the top positions in the party and the military commission, and foreign observers began regarding him as the likely heir apparent to North Korea's leadership. At the same time though, he had acquired a reputation in the West as a womanizer, a heavy drinker and a fan of Hollywood action movies.

An Uncertain Succession

When Kim Il Sung died in 1994, it wasn't clear whether Kim Jong Il would be strong enough to match his father's God-like status or to fend off rivals for control of the government. Kim Il Sung's cult of personality was so pervasive that even in death he was named "eternal president," and the post of active president was abolished.

It wasn't until 1998 that it became fully clear to outsiders that Kim Jong Il was in command. That year, his post as chairman of the National Defense Commission was declared to be the highest position in the North Korean government.

Peter Maass, a reporter for The New York Times Magazine, told NPR in 2006 that Kim was underrated as a political leader when he first came to power. Maass, who has written extensively about Kim, said information that has emerged lately shows Kim was learning about his future role throughout his early years.

Maass says it's a portrait "of somebody, who even from a young age, as a teenager, was very smart, was interested in politics, was taking notes, was traveling with his father to Russia, and really kind of learning about power, how to manipulate power, how to stay in power."

As it did when Kim Jong Il's father died, speculation now centers on who is likely to succeed him. Kim Jong Il has three sons. The eldest, Kim Jong Nam, 37, is thought to have backing form China, but his 27-year-old half brother, Kim Jong Cheol, appears to have support from high ranking North Korean government officials.

Correction Sept. 10, 2008

The introduction to this interview referred to "President Kim Jong Il." Another man, Kim Yong Nam, holds the title of president and is the nominal head of state.

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