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2008/09/11 11:20 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 20 (September 11, 2008)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

'N. Korean Leader Recovering from Surgery after Stroke'

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Amid widespread international speculation over whether North Korea's leader has fallen ill, South Korean intelligence officials said on Sept. 10 that Kim Jong-il has undergone surgery after suffering from a stroke but is recovering.

   There has yet to be any official confirmation from the reclusive state as to Kim's health condition. North Korean officials earlier denied reports about Kim's illness, calling such claims a "conspiracy." The 66-year-old leader is known to have diabetes and heart problems.

   "North Korean leader Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke but is quickly recovering," a lawmaker quoted South Korea's intelligence agency as saying in a report to the National Assembly Intelligence Committee. The legislator dismissed rumors that Kim may no longer be able to rule.

   North Korea's state media has not reported a public appearance by Kim since Aug. 14, and the leader was notably absent from a parade on Sept. 9 commemorating North Korea's 60th founding anniversary, escalating rumors he may be seriously ill.

   "Kim suffered either a stroke or a cerebral hemorrhage but is recovering, the intelligence agency said. Pyongyang is not in a state of administrative vacuum," Won Hye-young, the floor leader of South Korea's main opposition Democratic Party, told reporters after attending the closed-door parliamentary session. "Although Kim is not fit enough for outside activity, he is conscious and able to control affairs," Won added.

   Other lawmakers who attended the session, where the chief of Seoul's National Intelligence Service briefed the parliament, backed Won's remarks. "Kim was planning to attend the founding ceremony in the afternoon, but was unable to make it due to the aftereffects," an unnamed lawmaker quoted an intelligence official as saying.

   This year, North Korea made the rare choice of skipping morning celebration activities for its founding ceremony, which usually feature thousands of goose-stepping troops and missile launchers parading through its capital with their high-profile leader looking on.

   The annual September celebration has long been considered a means to virtually monitor the health of the 66-year-old North Korean leader and the son of the country's founding father, Kim Il-sung, who died of a heart attack in 1994.

   Seoul has been on maximum alert, trying to verify Kim's condition while maintaining a low-key attitude on the official level. President Lee Myung-bak convened an unscheduled meeting with his senior secretaries in the early morning of Sept. 10, discussing countermeasures to any emergent situation in Pyongyang. Later in the day, President Lee called an emergency security meeting.

   South Korean military authorities said there were no signs of unusual movement by the North Korean military and that the South is keeping a close watch.

   The reports about Kim came as North Korea, which tested a nuclear device in 2006, has recently retreated from a six-nation denuclearization deal by threatening to restart its nuclear reactor. The deal -- struck with South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia -- promises to remove the North from the U.S. list of terrorism sponsors, but Pyongyang claims Washington has failed to honor its side of the pledge.

   The latest flurry of rumors surrounding Kim's health was sparked after footage from the North's Korean Central TV Broadcasting Station obtained in Seoul confirmed Kim's absence from the North's military parade for the 60th founding anniversary in Pyongyang on Sept. 9. Kim had attended the parade on the 50th and 55th anniversaries.

   North Korea was expected to hold its largest-ever military parade and a rally of about 1 million Pyongyang citizens in the capital city in celebration of the 60th anniversary. Instead, the celebration was scaled back, with only the civilian army troops, called the Worker-Peasant Red Guard, and Pyongyang citizens participating. The North's military forces did not participate in the parade.

   Reports have surfaced of Western and Chinese doctors flying into the socialist state. "A French medical team is believed to have entered the North via China, apparently in relation to his worsened health condition," a North Korea expert in Seoul said. In May last year, a group of German medical experts reportedly visited the North and performed bypass surgery on the leader's heart.

   Denying mounting international speculation on Kim's health, however, North Korea's No. 2 leader, President of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly Kim Yong-nam -- who attended the parade along with other senior North Korean officials including Jo Myong-rok, first-vice chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC) -- was quoted as telling reporters in Pyongyang that there is no problem with the North Korean leader's health.

   He claimed such speculation is part of a conspiracy, Kyodo News reported. "There are no problems" with the health of the North Korean leader, Kyodo quoted Kim Yong-nam as saying in Pyongyang. "While we wanted to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the country with General Secretary Kim Jong-il, we celebrated on our own," he said.

   His remarks came after Song Il-ho, North Korea's diplomat on normalizing ties with Japan, dismissed the media speculation "as not only worthless, but a conspiracy plot."
Meanwhile, President Lee instructed his Cabinet to be fully prepared for an abrupt change in North Korea's political situation after being briefed during an emergency late-night meeting with security-related ministers.

   Earlier in the day, Unification Minister Kim Ha-joong said in a parliamentary committee meeting that nothing has been confirmed accurately except that the North Korean leader was absent from the Sept. 9 parade event.

   "Foreign media have made various reports recently on Chairman Kim's health problems, and the (South Korean) government and major nations are trying to confirm them," the minister said using the North Korean leader's official title. "It is such a sensitive issue that I cannot talk about it without confirmation of the facts."
Speculation about Kim's health surfaced as Kim's last public appearance was Aug. 14, when he was reported to have inspected a military unit on an unspecified date.

   Kim has led North Korea since his father and the country's founder, Kim Il-sung, died of a heart attack in 1994. Kim chairs the National Defense Commission, defined by the country's 1998 Constitution as the highest post of state. The commission also oversees North Korea's 1.1-million-strong military, the world's fifth-largest and the backbone of the socialist regime.