Recent reports in a Japanese newspaper that North Korea would make an official announcement regarding the health of Kim Jong Il seem to have been mere rumours. But what exactly is going on in North Korea? The leader has not appeared in public since mid-August, fuelling speculation that he could be very ill.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has not appeared in public since August
"I think that it is unlikely that any government coming after Kim Jong Il would be more than a transitional government towards an ultimate scenario of Korean reunification,” says Marcus Noland, a North Korea expert at the Peterson Institute in Washington DC.
He is currently very much in demand -- speculation about the isolated country and its notorious leader Kim Jong Il refuses to subside. Not much can be said about North Korea with absolute certainty. Except that it is the world’s last staunchly socialist authoritarian regime.
Kim Jong Il appears rarely in public -- supposedly for fear of terrorist attacks. The last publicly-circulated photos of him date back to 14. August when he inspected a military unit. He did not appear for the country’s 60th anniversary celebrations nor for the Arirang performances.
Unclear post-Kim Jong Il scenario
The South Korean secret services later said he had had a stroke and was recovering. But North Korea denied these claims. Nobody really knows whether Kim Jong Il is in good or bad health or even alive. It is unclear what might happen if he is dead.
"There are basically three centres of power in North Korea,” explains Nolan. “One is the family, one is the party, one is the military. There are clearly rivalries within the family; there are factions within the party. What I don’t know about is to what extent there are factions within the military. But there appear to be at least some coalitions across those groups, which makes prediction about how a post-Kim Jong Il transition would sort itself out very difficult.”
But Nolan is not necessarily optimistic about the fate of the country, which declared itself to be a nuclear power after test-firing missiles in 2006: "The worst case is that those rivalries and those competitions within and among those power centres actually degenerates into armed conflict and one of the things that one has to keep in mind about North Korea it is the world’s most heavily militarised society.”
Pressing on with disarmament negotiations
Right now, the country is developing long-distance missiles, which could reach targets in Europe and the US. This is why the US is intent on continuing disarmament negotiations regardless of Kim Jong Il’s health.
Earlier this month, North Korea was struck off the list of terrorist states after the US envoy in Pyongyang cleared up some controversial points.
This is a sign that there is still a functioning decision-making structure in North Korea and that whether Kim Jong Il is dead or alive, the international community still has a negotiating partner in North Korea.