North Korea Leader's Absence Spurs Stroke Rumors
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.
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.