North Korean leader's health shrouded in mystery

Denny Roy
Denny Roy

By Leland Kim - bio | email

MANOA (KHNL) - International speculation on the health and well-being of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il continues Wednesday. He has been visibly absent for about a month now.

Unconfirmed reports from South Korea indicate he had a stroke, but the reclusive North Korea leader is said to be doing just fine. Still, if and when he is no longer in power, the change could have a significant impact in the region.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is arguably the most reclusive international leader. He's continued his father Kim Il-sung's isolationist foreign policy, since the younger Kim took over in 1994 after his father's death.

Recently, international speculation about Kim Jong-il's health has grown, after he was a no show at his country's 60th anniversary celebration Tuesday. Some believe he's gravely ill, on the verge of dying.

But northeast Asia expert Denny Roy says it's too early to jump to conclusions.

"It's important to remember that there's a long history of rumors of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung having died which have turned out to be untrue," said Roy, a senior fellow with the East-West Center in Manoa. "There's a lot of wishful thinking here."

That wishful thinking has many, especially in northeast Asia, wondering about the future of north korea.

"If something were to happen to Kim Jong-il, what would it mean for the region?" asked KHNL.

"This means North Korea takes a step towards unification of Korea, and an entire Korean peninsula under a government like something we have in South Korea," said Roy. "That could mean one of the greatest security threats and problems in the region is taken away."

But it all depends on who takes over for Kim Jong-il. Neither of his two sons seems prepared to lead, so the North Korean military could pick a successor.

"You might have a case where the military elites feel extremely insecure and feel they have to hunker down, hold to the old policies, withdraw even further, concentrate on defending North Korea rather than opening up," said Roy.

But if that strategy fails, its southern neighbor could shoulder a lot of the burden.

"South Korea could conceivably be put in a circumstance where they have to act much like West Germany had to react to the collapse of East Germany whether they want to or not," said Roy. "That's not what the South Koreans prefer but that could happen any time in the near future, or even tomorrow."

Again, we don't know the exact state of Kim's health because it's hard to get information out of North Korea. But if he can no longer continue as the leader, it would cause a major shakeup in the region.