There are new concerns about the health of Kim Jong-il, and a potential succession struggle in North Korea. Speculation about the North Korean dictator's condition was recently re-ignited when a Japanese TV crew filed one of Kim's sons entering the clinic of a well-known French brain surgeon.
According to the U.K. Times, Kim Jong-Nam, the eldest son of Kim Jong-il, spent several hours in consultations with the doctor. Two days later, the same physician was spotted arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport, in a car owned by the North Korean government. When questioned by reporters, the doctor did not deny that Pyongyang was his final destination.
Such reports suggest that Kim Jong-il remains gravely ill, after reportedly suffering a stroke in August. While state-run media in Pyongyang has dismissed such claims as a "whopping lie," the North Korean dictator has been absent from public view since that time. Earlier this month, North Korea released images of Kim reportedly inspecting a female army unit, but some experts believe they are file photographs, taken months ago.
Both U.S. and South Korean intelligence officials believe that Kim suffered a stroke, but they suggest his condition is improving--and that he remains firmly in charge of the DPRK. So far, analysts in Washington and Seoul have refused comment on the Japanese report, and what it might mean for the future of North Korea.
As we've noted in previous posts, Kim Jong-il has never clarified the succession issue, and it's unclear who might assume power upon his death. Kim Jong-Nam was once considered a prime candidate, but he reportedly fell out of favor after a series of diplomatic blunders, including his 2001 expulsion from Japan. The younger Kim got the boot after he tried to enter the country with a phony Dominican Republic passport, claiming that he wanted to visit Tokyo's Disneyland.
Since then, Kim Jong-Nam has spent much of his time in Europe and Asia, tending to his "business interests," code words for management of the family fortune, estimated at more than $1 billion. American intelligence analysts indicate that North Korea has a team of financial managers in Switzerland, handling investments for the "Dear Leader" and his closest relatives.
By working abroad, Kim Jong-Nam has never accumulated the prestige or administrative portfolio required to replace his father. As the Times observes, the young Kim apparently has no interest in navigating his way to the top of the DPRK power structure.
That's why many Korea watchers believe that the Kim dynasty will end with Kim Jong-il. His replacement will likely come from the ranks of senior generals, but there's no indication as to how long the Hermit Kingdom will survive without the Kim personality cult. As for Kim Jong-Nam, he is apparently planning to be "somewhere else" when that day of reckoning occurs. And it may happen sooner, rather than later, if the current round of medical speculation has any credibility.
And, if that's not enough, the AP reports that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has fallen ill, due to "exhaustion brought on by his heavy workload." Ahmadeinjad reportedly cancelled a pair of events last Wednesday. He was seen at a religious ceremony in Tehran on Saturday, though he appeared tired.
At age 53, Ahmadinejad is more than a decade younger than Kim Jong-il, and without the habits that have affected the North Korean dictator's health. Still, Ahmadinejad's sudden illness will cause intelligence agencies to take another look at his health, although accurately assessing the condition of foreign leaders is an inexact science, at best.