How Ill is Kim Jong-il?
Photo:A compilation by Reuters of pool photographs and images provided by North Korea’s KCNA news agency showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il from 2004 to 2009. The photograph in the lower right was released this week by KCNA
By Jon Herskovitz
The image the world once had of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, with a trademark paunch, platform shoes and a bouffant hair-do, is gone and may never come back. He has now become a gaunt figure with thinning hair who has trouble walking in normal shoes, let alone ones with heels 8-10 centimetres (3-4 inches) high like he used to wear.
A look at photographs the North’s official media has released of Kim over the past few months indicate he is not a healthy man. There has been an enormous amount of speculation about what is wrong with Kim, 67, including a report from South Korean TV network YTN this week that he has life-threatening pancreatic cancer.
Kim’s health is one of the most closely guarded secrets in the highly secretive North and his actual condition is likely known by a handful of people in his inner circle who risk death or prison camp for themselves and their families if they ever whisper a word about Kim’s problems.
It is a state crime in North Korea to make any comment that questions Kim’s god-like status in the communist dynasty he has ruled since 1994 when his father and state founder Kim Il-sung died.
The most likely way that the outside world will ever receive any reliable information about Kim’s health is if his hermit state invites in foreign doctors to treat him. This appears to have happened about a year ago when he was widely suspected of suffering a stroke. U.S. and South Korean intelligence sources were then able to leak to the media information about what was ailing Kim.
Intelligence sources Reuters spoke to in Seoul would not confirm the latest reports of pancreatic cancer. They did agree on one thing, Kim is still sick.
Kim’s declining health has led to questions in the outside world if the man known at home as the “Dear Leader” still has his iron grip on power over the state he and his father have run since its inception more than 60 years ago.
Within North Korea, images of a weary Kim can actually help him win support among the public.
The North’s state propaganda has built an image of Kim as a person who works tirelessly to better his struggling state. The North’s propaganda says Kim gets little sleep as he travels the country by day and forms its policies at night.
Kim rarely is seen in state media presiding over major state functions or greeting foreign dignitaries. That is mostly left to Kim Yong-nam, the North’s nominal number two leader and its head of state.
If Kim Jong-il looks weak and sickly, it arouses sympathy and support among the North Korean public who feel he has put his own well being at risk working for them.
In the weeks and months ahead, there will likely be more speculation as to what is physically wrong with Kim. Some of the reports will be more reliable than others. But the actual state of Kim’s health will not likely be known until a time the foreign doctors visit again or those nearest Kim feelsafe to reveal the secret.