Seeing doubles in Dear Leader's no-show
TOKYO - North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's apparent no-show on Tuesday at celebrations to mark the nation's 60th anniversary has prompted intense speculation among Pyongyang watchers and intelligence communities worldwide. Experts are straining to figure out the whereabouts of the nation's leader and exactly what's going on in the world's most reclusive country.
According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, there have been no North Korean media reports on the military parade as of 5pm on Tuesday. The Associated Press also reported that there had been no domestic news coverage of the event by Tuesday evening . According to the AP, North Korea's state news agency did carry an exhortation from the main Rodong Sinmun newspaper calling on the population to remain united around Kim.
North Korea's 60th anniversary comes at a time that international efforts to end Pyongyang's nuclear quest remain stalled. Former US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage on Tuesday said Kim was unlikely to give up nuclear weapons and was likely to launch a missile again soon, the Japanese and South Korean media reported. Armitage spoke at an international seminar in Seoul.
In East Asia, a 60th anniversary is highly significant as it signifies the entering of the traditional sexagenary cycle as a cultural custom. This is why the absence of the nation's leader adds to speculation that something is happening to Kim.
A veteran and famous Japanese expert on North Korea has said Kim, 66, died of diabetes in the autumn of 2003 and his role has been played by four body doubles, with two being almost perfect look-alikes, and the nation has already forged collective leadership among top four officials.
Other analysts have said "Dear Leader" Kim might have been shifted from the top position due to serious sickness, signaling the beginning of his downfall at a time of unprecedented economic and international political problems. This all suggests Kim might have been on the sidelines and been kept out of the loop already, a power shift in the Hermit Kingdom.
"Chances are high that Kim has already died," Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo and an expert on Korean Peninsula affairs, said in an interview with Asia Times Online. "He suffered from diabetes, heart disease, liver disorder, lung problem and bipolar disorder."
Kim collapsed last month, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported on Tuesday, quoting a South Korean official in Beijing.
"We have obtained intelligence that National Defense Commission chairman Kim Jong-il had collapsed on August 22," the official with the South Korean Embassy in Beijing was quoted as saying by the Korean newspaper, adding to growing speculation about the whereabouts of missing Kim, who has not been seen in public for almost one month. His last outing was on August 14 when he reportedly inspected a military unit in North Korea.
"That collapsed person should be one of the four doubles," said Shigemura, the professor at Waseda University, who cites sources from inside North Korea and from the intelligence services of Japan, South Korea and Washington in his book titled The True Character of Kim Jong-il published last month.
According to his reliable source, Kim was condemned to a wheelchair as early as 2000 as he fell into the terminal stage of diabetes.
Shigemura claims North Korea has adopted a form of collective executive leadership led by Kim Yong-nam, the current secretary of the Central Committee, and Chang Sung-taek, who is the brother-in-law of Kim Jong-il and oversees responsibility for the police, judiciary, and other areas of internal security as top official at Workers' Party of Korea, along with two other top officials.
The "collective leadership" is engaged in a fierce internal power struggle, Shigemura said.
"I do not buy the view Kim has died already," Lee Young-hwa, the representative of Rescue the North Korean People! (RENK), a Japan-based citizens' group supporting North Korean asylum seekers in China since early 1990s, told Asia Times Online. Lee is also an economics professor and third-generation Korean resident in Japan. "It has no credibility, as the South Korean intelligence community has denied it. But Kim might have got the early stage of Alzheimer's disease already, besides diabetes and heart disease.
"Power is shifting from the Dear Leader to Chang Sung-taek, the brother-in-law of Kim, and his eldest son Kim Jong-nam, 37, as China backs their reform and door-opening policies, compared with Kim Jong-il's reclusive polices," Lee said.
Shigemura disagrees with this view.
"Kim Jong-nam has no achievements in the nation and only China is backing him," Shigemura said. "He has no prospects of being the next leader." His illegal entry into Japan in May, 2001 and arrest by Japanese authorities helped drop him in the race for successor, he added.
Kosuke Takahashi, a former staff writer at the Asahi Shimbun, is a freelance correspondent based in Tokyo. He can be contacted at [email protected]