Today's intelligence howler comes from the normally-well-respected U.K. Telegraph.
According to the paper, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il actually died more than four years ago, and has been "replaced" by a series of body-doubles who've been "running" the country and meeting with foreign leaders.
We should note that the Telegraph's reporting is based on the analysis of Professor Toshimitsu Shigemura, a Japanese expert on North Korea. Professor Shigemura who has written a best-selling book on Pyongyang's alleged deception.
As you might expect, his "theory" has been rejected by South Korean intelligence agencies, and groups associated with North Korea's government. The Telegraph account did not contain a response from U.S. intelligence officials, but we'll go out on a limb and say they concur with their colleagues from Seoul.
Still, Shigenmura insists that Kim Jong-il died of complications from diabetes in the fall of 2003. That is the same time that Kim disappeared from public view for more than 40 days, triggering rumors of health problems, a power struggle at the highest levels of the DPRK government, or a mourning period after the death of his first wife.
If you believe the professor, senior North Korean officials decided to cover up Kim's death by sending out look-alikes to take his place. In the meantime, the real power in Pyongyang has been shared by the four senior officials of Kim's government. One of them supposedly appears with the body double at every public appearance, or meeting with foreign dignitaries.
Shigenmura claims to have talked with a DPRK agent who has met one of the stand-ins. The agent reported that the body-doubles were hired while Kim was still "alive." Ever-fearful of a coup, he reportedly used them at public appearances before his untimely "death."
Of course, there is a long history of political and military figures using look-alikes to confuse their adversaries. British General Bernard Montgomery had at least two during World War II; their appearances at different locations at the same time (along with the real Field Marshal) created confusion among German intelligence analysts. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were also known to employ doubles. More recently, a number of notorious leaders, including Manuel Noreiga, Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro, have also used doppelgangers.
But the purported North Korean deception raises a couple of questions. First, with Kim out of the way, why would the four officials agree to a power-sharing arrangement? Even the DPRK, with its slavish devotion to the "Cult of the Kims" could transition to a new leader. If nothing else, the sudden demise of Kim Jong-il--with no designated successor--would likely trigger a frantic scramble for power. The "brokered" arrangement described in Shigenmura's book, fronted by the deception effort, simply doesn't fit the template of communist politics, even in North Korea.
Secondly, how could the charade be sustained in an era of forensic science? Shigenmura claims that voice analysis of Kim Jong-il's speech confirms the deception, but there would be other clues as well, detectable through photographic analysis and measurement. Not even world-class plastic surgery can completely transform one man into another.
For those reasons, it's almost impossible that Kim Jong-il has been replaced by body-doubles, almost five years after his supposed death. Besides, Kim's most likely successor would come from the DPRK miliary, an outfit that is even more xenophobic and reactionary than he is. There is no assurance that Kim's replacement would adhere to his policies, particularly the recent overtures--and agreements--with the United States.