Saturday, October 18, 2008

Waiting for Word

We may know more about the condition of Kim Jong-il in the coming days.

AFP, citing Japanese media reports, say that North Korean officials posted abroad have been told to "prepare for an important announcement" that may be related to the reclusive dictator's health. The statement is expected in a few days.

Pyongyang has told diplomats around the world to stay in one place and refrain from travelling, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported, quoting several unnamed sources familiar with North Korean issues.

The sources speculated the message could be related to North Korea's relations with South Korea or the health of Kim, Japan's best-selling daily said, adding that the announcement was expected in a few days.

Rumors about Kim Jong-il's health have swirled since mid-August, when he reportedly suffered a stroke and underwent brain surgery. Speculation intensified in early September, when Kim failed to appear at a massive celebration for the 60th anniversary of the DPRK.

A spokesman for South Korea's national intelligence service said his agency was "checking" the most recent reports on Kim Jong-il. However, intel sources in Washington and Seoul say they believe that Kim remains in charge of his regime. A U.S. official recently suggested that the North Korean leader's condition has "improved" in recent weeks, and he is not incapacitated.

State-run media in the DPRK recently published photos of Kim inspecting a female military unit, although it was unclear when the images were taken. Kim has not met with foreign dignitaries in several months, although such meetings were rare, even when he was in good health.

At this point, it's impossible to say what sort of message may come from Pyongyang. Western intelligence agencies have only limited insight into the political workings of the North Korean regime. The Hermit Kingdom rarely telegraphs its moves, and is adept at both military and geopolitical deception.

Many Korean watchers remember a particularly bizarre incident in the late 1980s. North Korean loudspeakers along the DMZ--and some media outlets in Pyongyang--suddenly announced that Kim il-Sung was dead. To this day, that episode has never been satisfactorily explained, although some have suggested that the broadcasts were connected to an attempted coup, or an effort to gauge potential reaction to his eventual passing.

Eventually, it became clear that the elder Kim was still among the living. He retained power until his death in 1994, and was succeeded by Kim Jong-il.

Currently, there is no convincing evidence that the younger Kim is permanently incapacitated, or preparing to transfer power to a new leader. Indeed, while Kim Jong-il is (reportedly) grooming his son to eventually take the reigns of power, most observers believe that he is not ready for that transition. The most likely, short-term successor for Kim Jong-il would come from the ranks of the nation's senior generals.

That scenario is considered remote--at least for now. But there's little certainty in trying to predict the actions of the DPRK. So that pending announcement clearly bears watching.

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