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15 September 2008

North Korea’s future

Reports of the Dear Leader’s demise point to a more serious problem. There's no clear successor to K

By Mark Seddon

Reports of the death of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il may be exaggerated. His failure to attend the sixtieth anniversary celebrations of the founding of the North Korean state recently was excitedly carried by news agencies and television stations around the world, proof, possibly that South Korean intelligence could be right; that Kim Jong Il was dead.

Astonishingly CNN, and veteran anchor, Wolf Blitzer, gave airtime to a Japanese analyst who claimed Kim Il Jong had in fact been dead for years, and that his place has been taken by a double. Well, I have seen Kim Jong Il in the flesh on two occasions, admittedly at a distance, so it is possible in theory that the man I was looking on was a double, even down to his platform shoes. Possible, but unlikely.

In fact, without risking encouraging the grim reaper, or entirely disputing reports from South Korean intelligence, I can recall at least two, maybe three, occasions in recent years when the Dear Leader reportedly had died.

His failure to appear on the Dais in Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang some years ago was taken as proof of his demise. And then there was the train explosion on the border with China four or five years back. But Kim Jong Il had not been assassinated; a freight train containing chemicals had exploded. Those living near the track weren’t so fortunate; many hundreds perished or were badly wounded, but the Dear Leader’s train had passed through unscathed many hours before.

What we do know however is that Kim Il Jong has not appeared in public since mid August.

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I was in North Korea with Labour MEP Glyn Ford, filming reports for Al Jazeera TV, and I have copies of the Pyongyang Times from mid July. Kim – or his double – looks hale and hearty, ‘giving field guidance to various sectors in Hwaphyong County’.

Hardly proof of course that all is well. It is reported for instance that Kim Jong Il suffers from diabetes and his August absence coincided with specialist Chinese doctors being flown in to attend him. In other words Kim Jong Il could be ill.

South Korean intelligence has also reported this summer that Kim Yong Nam, the official, although largely ceremonial leader, was seriously ill. But there he was on the Dais in Kim Il Sung Square during the 60th anniversary celebrations standing in for Kim.

And Glyn Ford, veteran Korea watcher and active participant in attempts to get the North out of its isolation, points out that key decisions are still being taken at the highest level. The North has announced its intention to restart its nuclear programme, in protest at the United States refusal to remove it from its list of State sponsors of terror.

The North has also indicated its willingness to improve relations with Japan, and would probably facilitate the return of two Japanese Red Army Faction hijackers, who have been residing in Pyongyang since the 1970s.

Whether the reports of the Dear Leader’s demise, imminent of existent, are proved true or are propaganda aimed at destabilizing the regime, we do not know.

However reports of the Dear Leader’s demise point to a potentially more serious problem to come. There remains no clear successor to Kim Jong Il, and the North’s Communist political and military leadership is increasingly aged. Which could point, some optimists might say, for a chance of rapid change at the top that might in turn usher in political and economic reform. Pessimists might argue in turn that if reports of the Dear Leader have proved untimely, reports of the demise of the Communist North over the years have certainly been premature.

Turmoil and instability, revolution’s friend, gave the world the DPRK sixty years ago. Now that country is a nuclear state, turmoil and instability is what the North’s neighbours fear the most.

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