A South Korean lawmaker says the country's intelligence service has testified that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is recovering from a stroke. North Korean officials say Kim Jong Il is just fine, and reject a proliferation of media reports that have questioned his health. As VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul, no other nation depends so heavily on one single individual.
South Korean lawmaker Won Hye-young told reporters Wednesday the country's intelligence service believes Kim Jong Il has suffered a stroke - but that he should be able to recover.
Won attended a closed parliament session at which he said intelligence officials testified Kim Jong Il cannot walk, but remains conscious. That account sharply contradicts North Korean assessments of his condition.
The Japanese news agency Kyodo quotes North Korea's second highest-ranking leader, Kim Yong-nam, as saying "nothing is wrong" with Kim Jong Il. A senior North Korean diplomat rejects recent reports about his health as "worthless" and part of a "conspiracy plot."
Sixty-six-year-old Kim Jong Il holds absolute power in North Korea's authoritarian government. He is believed to have some health issues, including diabetes. However, rumors of a more serious illness surfaced Tuesday, when he failed to appear at a military parade to mark the 60th anniversary of North Korea's founding. That followed weeks of absence from public view.
Unification Minister Kim Ha-joong told a parliament hearing the government is on "high alert." A spokesman for the South Korean President Lee Myung-bak says he has been meeting with
top officials to discuss preparations for any possible emergency.
Analysts say it is difficult to overstate Kim Jong Il's personal importance to North Korea's political cohesion. He is heir to a religion-like cult of personality the state built around his father, Kim Il Sung, the country's first president. He is also seen as the only individual who can rise above factions who might otherwise jostle with each other for power.
Human rights advocates say Kim Jong Il is also the lynchpin of a system that relies on terror to ensure public order. His absence could make it more difficult to manage millions of impoverished North Koreans who have endured near-starvation conditions for nearly two decades.
A North Korean collapse would create a security nightmare for the country's nearest neighbors, China and South Korea. Leaders there fear a tidal wave of refugees. South Korea could possibly find itself having to pay for hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency infrastructure
and social welfare costs for the decayed North. Getting control of North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile arsenal would be a chief concern for Washington.
Kim Jong Il was openly groomed by his father for several decades, but has not publicly designated any successor for himself. Kim Yong-hyeon - a North Korea specialist at Seoul's Donguk University - says it is unlikely a family member will take over in Pyongyang.
He says the most likely successor to Kim Jong Il would come from top brass of the military, the strongest of North Korea's organizations.
Those details - like the health prognosis of the North Korean leader - remain, for now, a matter of speculation and guesswork.