Kim Jong-il's vanishing actBEIJING - A report in the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph claiming that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is seriously ill, coupled with his disappearance from public view for the past month, has led to speculation and concern about a post-Kim North Korea.
If true, it would be very big news, as it opens up the possibility of many disagreeable things: the regime's collapse, a flood of refugees to neighboring countries, a bloody power struggle, or even a nuclear war in the case of a hardline military faction coming to power.
The fact that the news became the most-viewed article of the newspaper that day, while other news outlets around the world busily cited it, testifies that the world is concerned about what is happening in Pyongyang.
The most intriguing speculation contained in the Telegraph article was the purported visit by a team of German doctors, specializing in heart surgery, to Pyongyang. That was seen by some observers to support the conclusion that Kim is seriously ill, because he has long been known to suffer from a heart condition.
The story was further embellished by vivid details of Kim's condition that were allegedly provided by foreign diplomatic sources in Pyongyang. It reported that Kim could barely walk 30 meters and had to be accompanied by an assistant carrying a chair so that he could sit and catch his breath.
But Jang Sung-min, a former South Korean lawmaker and chief aide to former president Kim Dae-jung, who just came back from a trip to Pyongyang, simply brushed off the news. "When I saw the report, I didn't trust it at all," Jang said.
Jang visited Pyongyang from May 12-15, meeting with some high-ranking officials there. He said he actually asked them, just out of courtesy, about Kim Jong-il's health. They briskly replied that he was "in good shape" and volunteered some details.
They said candidly that Kim still has some heart conditions, and that he has not completely recovered from diabetes. But he is taking good care of his health by refraining from smoking, and making some dietary adjustments and taking part in physical therapy, they said.
Jang, who also served as a member of the Unification and Foreign Affairs Trade Committee at the South Korean National Assembly, declined to name the Pyongyang officials he had met with, claiming he was asked by the North Koreans not to disclose such information.
Jang is known to be well connected with the administrations of both North Korea and the United States. He is also the one who made public the e-mails exchanged between North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan, and a senior US State Department official.
"The Telegraph's report that Kim can barely walk 30 yards is not the case, as far as I know," Jang said, adding that if that indeed were the case, then the militaries in neighboring countries as well as the US would be on high alert for "all possible situations that one can imagine, including a war".
Jang said it's true that Kim hasn't shown up in public for about a month, and that this has triggered some suspicion from the Western media whether something is going on.
However, he said, if that is really something to do with Kim's health, and if it is as serious as alleged in the report, then the very news that North Korea invited a team of German doctors to conduct some heart surgeries or that he needs some support to move around would have been suppressed from the beginning, because it would be a top national-security issue.
Usually when high-ranking North Korean officials are sick, they seek the help of Russian doctors, because they know the public can be kept in the dark. "Seeking help from German doctors risks leakage," Jang said, adding that the very fact that it was apparently leaked this time proves that Kim is okay.
Jang said that the US too knows very well about Kim's condition, and that's why it has remained "quiet" after the report. According to Jang, North Korea is under very close US surveillance. The US spy satellites above Korea can photograph objects on the ground as small as 30 centimeters. That means that whenever Kim leaves his residence, the US will know it for sure. "It's not likely that they can cheat the US," Jang said.
In 1994, when the administration of US president Bill Clinton was discussing the possibility of bombing North Korea's nuclear facility in Yongbyon, the family members of US soldiers in South Korea were already starting to be evacuated back to home.
"If the news report is true, then the situation is even graver than the one in 1994," said Jang. "It would be a very urgent situation, and the neighboring countries would have taken hurried steps as well as the US troops stationed in South Korea. But we don't see any signs of panic this time, so I think the media overdid things. I think it's not appropriate to report that Kim is close to his last breath."
Jang said that while he was in Pyongyang, he watched Kim almost every day on television, busying himself inspecting various places such as factories processing mushrooms or producing porcelain or paper and a recently built dam site.
"If Kim is still actively conducting site inspections in various places, it shows that he's confident about his health. So Kim's disappearance for the last one month is his disappearance to the outside world, but not within North Korea. As far as I now, his activities were reported there," Jang said.
Jang postulates that Kim's disappearance this time actually is a "strategy" aimed at seeking international attention. It has to do with the delay of the Macau funds transfer and the growing possibility that a candidate from South Korea's Grand National Party, which opposes President Roh Moon-hyun's soft policy on the North, is likely to win the presidential election in November. According to Jang, these are all factored into Kim's recent "disappearance".
"I am guessing that North Korea is raising the stakes by choosing not to show Kim Jong-il to the outside world," Jang said.
He said North Korea's recent missile tests are also Pyongyang's expression of discontent with the US for its delay of the transfer of US$25 million frozen in Macau's Banco Delta Asia, as it believes Washington is taking its sweet time by tossing the money around many different banks in many different countries.
The delay of the fund transfer is in a sense a "litmus test" for Pyongyang, Jang said. While North Korea is deeply mistrustful of the US, the US doesn't trust North Korea either. So before providing the country with massive assistance, Washington wants to know whether North Korea will really give up its nuclear programs this time, or just pretend to do so while getting all the economic benefits from the negotiation process, Jang said.
Jang is highly skeptical about the prospect of the ultimate implementation of the February 13 pact, agreed during the last nuclear talks in Beijing. "Even if the fund transfer is complete, the negotiation from then will not proceed smoothly because there is a fundamental lack of trust on both sides."
Sunny Lee is a journalist based in Beijing, where he has lived for five years. A native of South Korea, Lee is a graduate of Harvard University and Beijing Foreign Studies University.