Two rumors about the health of Kim Jong Il have been circulating - in one, Kim collapsed on August 22, and a team of nearly half a dozen Chinese doctors have been shuttling back and forth between Beijing and Pyongyang to treat a high-level North Korean official - ostensibly Kim. In the other, Kim died in 2003, and all his subsequent appearances, including meetings with foreign heads of state, have been carried out by body doubles, while real power lies in the hands of a small cadre of military and government officials.
Now, such rumors are not infrequent, and talk of Kim’s incapacitation or even death are just as frequent as reports of his insanity and womanizing. What to make of the current rash of reports is not readily clear.
Foreign media is laying a lot on the September 9 60th anniversary of North Korea, and its attendant parades, as a bellwether of Kim’s health; suggesting that if he doesn’t attend, it must mean he is ill or dead.
But in the 10 years that Kim has ruled North Korea (1998-2008, the first few years after his father’s death in 1994 were used to consolidate power, so I’ll count the real rule as starting in 1998), Kim only attended the anniversary of the DPRK parade twice, the 50th anniversary in 1998 and the 55th anniversary parade in 2003. [the initial post had an error, missing the 1998 attendance, though the point still stands - missing the 60th is somewhat odd, but not necessarily proof of his imminent demise.]
Kim has frequently dropped out of public site for a month (or even two or three) at a time in the past, potentially health related, but frequently apparently related to critical decisions in North Korea’s domestic policies and international relations. His last public appearance this year was August 14, when he visited KPA Unit 1319 with two of his generals. Kim made 11 visits to military units in August, plus attended a military art performance, but that in itself was not all that unusual.
The current rash of rumors could be linked to propaganda or attempts to profit on the higher profile of North Korea after Pyongyang decided to start reversing its de-nuclearization following Washington’s decision not to immediately remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Or they could reflect more concrete rumors and leaks of the Dear Leader’s ill health. The least likely is the report that Kim died in 2003, though if that were true, there certainly has been little change in North Korea’s overall behavior and strategy since that time, so the net impact has been nil.
If Kim is sick to the point of worry about succession, that could explain the sudden shifts in North Korean behavior linked to the Kumkang shooting and Pyongyang’s apparent retraction from major initiatives with the South Koreans and others - an attempt to minimize leaks or opportunities for interference. The North Korean regime is certainly not perfect in unity, but there are not clear signs of major rifts among the elite, and even if Kim dies in the near future, it is less likely to cause a sudden collapse of the regime than a consolidation of interests to secure the privileges already given the elite.