North Korea celebrated its 60th birthday last week, and the event was attended by dignitaries from around the world—or, well, at least from the handful of countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Pyongang. But there was one especially prominent no-show: Kim Jong Il, the country's supreme leader. His absence touched off a flurry of concern in western capitals. The Dear Leader made his last appearance in public more than a month ago, and ever since there has been a steady drumbeat of talk about a possible illness—perhaps even stroke, that might have left Kim partly paralyzed.
That's a frightening prospect. You might think that having Kim in charge is bad enough. Although North Korea's population has endured famine, economic chaos and relentless oppression in the fourteen years since Kim took over, his sudden absence could prove to be even worse. Who would be in charge of North Korea's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction—which are presumed to include enormous stocks of chemical and biological weapons, as well as the half-dozen or so nuclear weapons that neighboring countries have spent the past decade and a half trying to negotiate away? If Kim Jong Il is incapacitated, the resulting power vacuum could trigger rivalry among military and government leaders who have been schooled for decades in the art of mutual distrust. "In the event of a succession crisis—something this society has never experienced before—there will be an extraordinary amount of nervousness among the political elite," says Brad Glosserman, executive director of Pacific Forum CSIS, in Honolulu. "There's no culture of compromise in North Korea, and everyone will assume the worst of everyone else."
The guessing game is additionally complicated by Kim's penchant for using his regime's tight control over information as a way of playing mind games with the outside world. He has a history of disappearing from public view for weeks or months at a time for no outwardly apparent reason. Some analysts think that this is at least partly a tactic to draw the international community's attention to the North at opportune moments. In 1998, Kim dropped out of sight not long before Pyongyang test-fired a long-range missile over the Sea of Japan. In February 2003, the Dear Leader vanished from public view right after Pyongyang declared its withdrawal from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. When Kim showed up again some fifty days later, Pyongyang surprised the world by agreeing to return to the negotiating table to discuss giving up its nuclear weapons. In July 2006, he disappeared one day before another missile test and wasn't seen again for more than a month; another absence from view, in October, coincided with the North's first nuclear test. Since Kim officially took office in 1997, there have been at least nine occasions when he has disappeared for periods of more than 20 days.
One of the reasons for the vanishing act may be simple fear. Like any tyrant, he has to be constantly on guard about possible assassination attempts. Intelligence sources say he refrains from flying because he's afraid his planes might be targeted. His whereabouts in the North are high classified and his public appearances are almost always reported after the fact. Kim is also notably paranoid about threats from the U.S. His long absences usually coincide at moments of particular tension with the United States—as in 2003, when his disappearance overlapped with the U.S. invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, an event that might have made him feel particularly vulnerable.
"Kim Jong Il might have worried about possible U.S. attacks against him or his country," says Choi Jong Gun at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. "He might have also sought global attention through his high-profile absences from public." Analysts say Kim also uses his disappearance to prepare for major announcements, as in the case of his 2003 decision to join the six-party talks.
But analysts caution that his absence this time might not be strategic. The day after Kim failed to turn up at the 60th anniversary celebrations, South Korean intelligence experts told parliamentarians that Kim apparently suffered a stroke around the middle of last month. The experts stressed that they didn't believe his condition was serious, though, calling it "recoverable and manageable." That runs directly contrary, of course, to some early rumors that seemed to put Kim on the verge of death, or at least dramatically incapacitated. Analysts also point out that the 60th anniversary celebration is an event much too important for the Dear Leader to miss without good reason. In Korean culture, 60th birthdays are traditionally headline events, treated with considerable fanfare. Yet Tuesday's celebration seems to have been relatively subdued. (According to sources in Seoul, a large number of troops at a nearby airfield, who were preparing to join the big military parade, were told to stand down shortly before they were about to move out.) According to some analysts, Kim was planning to show up at the ceremony but had to bow out at the last minute because of his health.
The fact that China didn't send a high-level delegation to the ceremony—as they've done on similar occasions in the past—might mean that Beijing knew of Kim's problem beforehand.
And so the guessing games continue. As recently as October of last year, Kim was personally boasting about his good health to then-South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, during the two men's summit meeting in Pyongyang. Kim went so far as to deny South Korean news reports that he had heart disease or diabetes, and even called South Korean journalists "novelists" for publishing speculation about his health. Yet Kim did admit worries about his health back in 2000 at a meeting with Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae Jung. The North Korean leader confessed that his doctors had forced him to give up smoking and limit his wine consumption. In recent years, there have been persistent and seemingly reliable reports of foreign doctors trooping to Pyongyang to administer treatment.
Still, as many experts caution, anyone who claims that they have the full inside story on what's happening in Pyongyang should be regarded with considerable skepticism. Given the secretiveness of Kim's government, it's clear that what we don't know is probably a lot more than what we do.