THIS week rumours swirled that Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s dictator, was gravely ill. The 66-year-old, officials said in Seoul, had suffered a “collapse”. South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, was worried enough to call an emergency meeting with senior aides. An anonymous American intelligence official in Washington might have been at the bedside: Mr Kim, she told reporters, was probably half-paralysed following a stroke. (Mysteriously, South Korean spooks later reported he was recovering from surgery.) A North Korean diplomat denied the claims as “nefarious machinations”, noting that the Western press had a habit of telling lies (unlike the snow-pure Pyongyang Times).
He is half-right. The Western press has recently shown lurid interest in the theory of a Japanese professor that a double has been standing in for Mr Kim, who has in fact been the Dear Departed since 2003. For years rumours have erupted about Mr Kim’s health following prolonged public absences. Each time, he has eventually waddled back into view. The last scare was in May 2007, when he stopped appearing in public, and diabetes or heart problems were blamed. A team of German heart surgeons, sworn to secrecy, was flown to Pyongyang. Yet they may have operated on any member of the elite, not specifically on Mr Kim. At any rate, by the time of an October summit with South Korea’s then president, Roh Moo-hyun, Mr Kim looked hale enough—by the standards of a man with a podgy, grey demeanour.
Perhaps something is up this time. Neither hide nor tousled hair of Mr Kim has been seen since August 14th. His absence was conspicuous at the huge celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of North Korea’s founding. They included a vast militia parade on September 9th.
Mr Kim became head of the armed forces in 1991, three years before the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, and the world’s first communist dynastic succession. Until now, Mr Kim appears not to have missed a single military parade. A foreign medical team, this time Chinese, is now back in the capital.
Some analysts have blamed Mr Kim’s health for recent setbacks in the “six-party process” meant to wean the regime off its nuclear weapons in return for aid and security guarantees. The current phase of the talks has to do with a proper accounting of the North’s nuclear programmes, in return for which America will drop North Korea from its blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism. Yet the information that North Korea has so far produced is underwhelming: it fails to cover details of existing plutonium weapons, a possible programme for enriching uranium, and proliferation activities in the Middle East.
North Korea is indignant at demands for intrusive inspections: it insists that America drop it from the blacklist before agreeing to a verification protocol. In August it stopped disabling its main nuclear facility at Yongbyon and even threatens to undo the dismantling. North Korea has also suddenly put on hold a recent agreement to launch an official investigation into the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped during the 1970s and 1980s and taken to the North. One Western diplomat, present at a weekend meeting in Beijing between envoys from America, Japan, China and South Korea, says these four parties are “at a loss over where to go next”.
Yet for North Korea, intransigence is the norm. Its negotiating style is marked by bluster, foot-dragging, blackmail and brinkmanship. Indeed, the same diplomat notes that the North’s recent actions have been “tactically cautious”: for instance, there is no sign that Yongbyon’s dismantlement is about to be fully reversed. In their talks over abductions, the Japanese think their counterparts acted entirely rationally—from a North Korean perspective. One senior Japanese official with long dealings says that North Korean diplomats do nothing without directions from the highest level. The Dear Leader, then, if he is ill, appears to be making clear decisions.
Still, speculation turns naturally to Mr Kim’s succession plan, for if he has one, he has not disclosed it. His possible heirs are little known, and include three sons and his brother-in-law. None has devoted the years spent by Mr Kim in preparing to take over. His eldest son was caught trying to enter Japan in 2001 on his way to Tokyo Disneyland; he subsequently lived and gambled in Macau. Of the other sons, both in their 20s, one is known only for his obsession with Eric Clapton, a rock star. Perhaps Mr Kim, a family man, intends that none of his relatives should be around on the day when international prosecutors come calling on the leaders of a regime that has starved, tortured or worked to death in prison camps many hundreds of thousands of its own people.