North Korea Denies Leader's Health Is Failing

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is reported to be in failing health. North Korean officials denied the report, while a U.S. intelligence official told NPR that Kim may have suffered a stroke in recent weeks.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to reports that the man known to his people as the Dear Leader could be gravely ill. We are referring, of course, to the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who didn't show up at his country's 60th anniversary parade yesterday. Today, North Korean officials denied that he's in failing health, but yesterday a U.S. intelligence official told NPR that he may have suffered a stroke in recent weeks. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is following the story from Beijing, and he joins us now live from Beijing to talk about it.

And Anthony, what is the word from North Korea?

ANTHONY KUHN: Well, the word comes from North Korea's second highest leader, Kim Yong Nam, that there is no problem with Kim Jong Il's health. And there was another similar message from a North Korean diplomat who's in charge of normalizing relations with Japan. He said not only are these foreign reports baseless, but, in fact, they're a conspiracy by Western media. But there's been no word from North Korea to its own people that their leader was, in fact, not at this major parade yesterday.

MONTAGNE: Is there any evidence to support the North Korean claims, because there have been reports for a few weeks now that he is unwell?

KUHN: That's correct. South Korean media reported that he actually collapsed on August 22nd. He hasn't been seen since August 14th. Then again, this has happened before. He's dropped out of sight for a month and then reappeared inspecting some facility somewhere. On the other hand, his father's death, Kim Il Sung, was not reported until 34 hours after the fact. So today's developments are certainly not going to put these rumors to bed.

MONTAGNE: And what about North Korea's nearest neighbors, South Korea and China? How are they taking this news? Seriously?

KUHN: Oh, very seriously. South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak called his advisors into an unscheduled meeting to discuss how to respond to this. The South Korean military establishment was looking to see if there was any movement by the North Korean military over the border. There wasn't. China sent congratulations to North Korea on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state. And they would be on point to deal with North Korea as closest ally if there was a power struggle. So it's being taken very seriously in the region.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, here in the U.S. this would be of great concern. U.S. intelligence officials say they have, quote, "high confidence in assessing that Kim suffered a stroke last month." But the U.S.-led effort to eliminate North Korea's nuclear weapons program is also potentially at issue at here.

KUHN: It sure is. I mean, look how difficult it is even without any news that Kim Jong Il has died. The North Koreans say they may reconstruct their main nuclear reactor out of discontent that the U.S. has not delisted them from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. If there were a succession crisis, it could also involve a battle for North Korea's nuclear assets. And this is why people in the region are very concerned.

MONTAGNE: Well, if Kim Jong Il is incapacitated or if he dies, who is likely to take over?

KUHN: Well, this whole thing calls attention to the issue of succession. There is no mechanism for choosing a new leader. And of Kim Jong Il's three sons, none has been groomed to take over the leadership as Kim Jong Il himself was. And so right now, it looks like the military is in the strongest position to pick the next leader. And that's something that's very, very worrying for a lot of people, because the military have taken a hard line on nuclear disarmament and other issues.

MONTAGNE: Anthony, thanks very much.

KUHN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking to us from Beijing on reports that the leader of North Korea is gravely ill.

It's NPR News.

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North Korea's 'Dear Leader' Proves Toughness

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il i i

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

itoggle caption 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.

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