Despite a heavy travel schedule this week, we've been trying to keep up with events in North Korea. Something is clearly amiss in the Worker's Paradise, after Kim Jong-il missed that big parade commemorating the 60th anniversary of the DPRK's founding.
Reports circulating in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington say that Kim is in poor health and is recovering from a stroke and/or surgery, depending on which version you believe. Kim Jong-il was absent from public view for several weeks prior to the parade, intensifying speculation about his condition.
According to the Associated Press, South Korea's National Intelligence Service has told lawmakers (and other senior officials) that Kim recently underwent surgery for a "circulatory problem" and his condition is much improved.
That mirrors information from the office of ROK President Lee Myung-bak, who was briefed on the health of the North Korean leader. A spokesman for Mr. Lee said that Kim Jong-il was "not seen to be in a serious condition."
South Korea's semi-official Yonhap news agency, citing lawmakers briefed by the intelligence agency, said the 66-year-old Kim suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, but he remains conscious and "is able to control the situation." The NIS also told a Parliamentary committee that North Korea is "not in a power vacuum" as a result of Kim's illness.
At this point, there is no way to independently confirm the spy agency's reporting. And there's the rub.
Human Intelligence or HUMINT reporting out of North Korea is notoriously poor. The NIS and other intel agencies have had little luck in penetrating the hermit kingdom; much of the information they receive comes from refugees or Japanese businessmen who travel to Pyongyang.
As you might guess, these "sources" are less than authoritative, and North Korean officials only suggest that Kim Jong-il is in robust health. That means spooks from South Korea and the United States are forced to rely on outward signs of health problems, a technique made more complex by Kim's infrequent public appearances.
In fact, the most reliable reporting on the dictator's condition would come from foreign doctors brought in to treat him. While there are reports to that effect, we should note that Pyongyang would tightly control their movements and consultations with colleagues back home. In other words, the odds of intercepting a phone call, fax or e-mail from a foreign physician treating Kim Jong-il are very low. We might have some luck talking with doctors who have consulted on the case, but locating them--and getting them to breach confidentiality agreements--is a tall order.
As a cautionary note, we cite the recent illness of Fidel Castro. Prior to his retirement, intelligence analysts in the U.S. (and elsewhere) had the Cuban leader at death's door, predicting his demise was only days away. While El Commandante was gravely ill, his condition was not as serious as many believed. Castro survived, and is apparently healthy enough to write socialist tracts for party newspapers in Havana.
That's why reports on the health of Kim Jong-il should be taken with a huge grain of salt. Bottom line: our insights into the condition of various dictators is extremely limited, and often based on marginal information. We really don't know how sick--or well--Kim actually is, and that makes the job of analysts that much more difficult.
One thing's for sure: Kim's prolonged absence from public view--and his non-attendance at Tuesday's parade--discredits reports that he died in 2003, and has been replaced by a series of look-alikes. If that were the case, then one of the body doubles would have certainly attended that all-important commemoration event.