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     Feb 16, 2011

Dear Leader faces unhappy birthday
By Sunny Lee

BEIJING - North Korea's Kim Jong-il marks his 70th birthday on Wednesday. While a birthday is usually a time for people to inquire after one's health and express good wishes, South Korea's largest-selling newspaper has welcomed the occasion with a "prognosis" for Kim and his regime.

For North Korea, the special occasion comes while a fraught succession process is unfolding and amid rising international reports about civil discontent over economic hardships. Against

this backdrop, the aging leader's state of health is drawing keen attention.

In the article "Doctors Identify Kim Jong-il's 3 Main Health Problems", published on Monday, South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo listed the Dear Leader as suffering from the fallout of a reported stroke in 2008, and chronic renal and cardiovascular disease.

The newspaper reported that movement in Kim's left hand and left foot has been restricted since his stroke "but the real problem is the depression or impulse control disorder that patients often suffer". It went on to note that "the dark spots on his face have grown and his nails are whiter" as evidence of looming liver failure.

"Kim Jong-il is elderly," said Lu Chao, director of the Korean Research Center at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, located near the North Korean border. "But he doesn't have any serious health problems that could jeopardize his control of the nation". Lu cited Kim's two trips to China last year as evidence of his health good health.

Though there are reports he recovered from his alleged stroke, Kim Mikyoung, an analyst on North Korea with the Hiroshima Peace Institute in Japan, says "it is an undeniable fact that his health is not what it used to be".

Kongdan Oh, an expert on North Korean politics at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Virginia, agrees. "Kim's health is wobbly," said Oh. "Although the details of how sick or how serious his illness is are speculative, he is really an unhealthy man."

In Asian culture a 70th birthday is traditionally a special occasion, and in North Korea Kim's birthday is already a national holiday, so it is likely that this Wednesday will see a big, nationwide festival. This is also the first birthday for Kim since his youngest son, Kim Jong-eun, made his official debut last autumn as heir apparent.

"Kim's birthday will be used as a moment to highlight the new heir and Kim Jong-il will try to show to the world that his grip on power is firm," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea studies professor at Dongguk University in Seoul.

However, despite North Korea's efforts, analysts say harsh economic conditions may lead to muted festivities that are little more than window dressing.

Kim's birthday follows last week's swift breakdown of inter-Korean military talks. On February 9 a North Korean delegation walked out of negotiations held at Panmunjom, the inter-Korean border village, rejecting South Korea's demand for an apology for provocations last year - its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and alleged torpedoing of a South Korean warship.

"North Korea's aim was to use the military talks to get food aid from South Korea ahead of Kim's birthday. So, the atmosphere in the North isn't too good now," said Baek Seung-joo of the state-affiliated Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. "North Korea is suffering from the side-effects of its miscalculated military provocations last year," said Baek.

North Korea has traditionally used scare tactics to secure economic aid from the South. However, the deaths of two civilians from the North's shelling of Yeonpyeong island in November hardened public opinion. For once the South hasn't been divided along ideological and political lines, instead standing behind the Lee Myung-bak administration's hardline policy toward the North.

Economic sanctions by the international community have also been tightened, straining the food situation in North Korea. Kim Jong-il's birthday is a rare occasion in North Korea when the people receive "gifts" from the Dear Leader, usually food. "People's discontent is increasing," said Baek.

On Tuesday, North Korea's official news agency reported that Meng Jianzhu, China's public security minister, had met with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang a day earlier, presenting gifts to the leader and to Jong-eun. It didn't elaborate whether the Chinese official also brought economic aid.

If the world ends up seeing less pompous birthday celebrations than previously, it may have to do with the fact that inside North Korea it is officially his 69th birthday, not his 70th.

The oddity has occurred because the North's propaganda machine adjusted his birth year from 1941 to 1942, making the last digit of the year end with the number "2" so that it would be the same as that of his father, Kim Il-sung, who was born in 1912. For this "divine coincidence" to be possible, Kim had to celebrate his 40th birthday twice in 1981 and 1982. But then "whether Kim is 69 or 70, it doesn't matter. It is still an old age," said Oh.

The question that North Korea watchers are focused on is whether the reportedly brooding civil discontent, plus doubts over Kim's health, are strong enough to tip a threshold into social instability.

This expectation has grown as the world watched surprising uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that overturned dictatorships. "I don't see any signs that can critically undermine the succession process," said Kim at Seoul's Dongguk University. "Internally, there are some economic problems with people's livelihoods, but it is not at the level that can crumble the social fabric. Even though Kim Jong-il has health problems, it is an established fact, but then it isn't too serious either. The most important external factor is China. Currently, Sino-North Korea ties are good."

Oh, the analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses agrees. "If you expect a military coup to happen in North Korea, you don't understand North Korea. People's discontent is mainly on the economic front. North Koreans are still fiercely loyal to Kim. They are also very patriotic. Besides, the regime thrives on an external crisis, instead of being weakened by it. An external crisis gives Kim Jong-il a chance to tell his people 'Look there's an enemy. We should unite.' He is a genius at that."

Kim at Japan's Hiroshima Peace Institute differs. "North Korea is run by one monarch with absolute power, Kim Jong-il. When there is a problem with Kim's health, that is bound to affect his power. Kim's health is deteriorating. And I don't see a clear power base for the heir yet. So, neighboring countries should have a plan, just in case, for various contingency situations," said Kim.

The US and South Korea will soon carry out annual joint military exercise, called Key Resolve. Chosun Ilbo has reported that they include training scenarios for what the two countries would do in the scenario that a civil war followed Kim Jong-il's death and the Chinese military entered the North.

"It's prudent to be ready," said Oh, who lived in Germany during the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. "When there was a little crack in the Berlin Wall, nobody knew that unification would come in less than a year."

Sunny Lee ([email protected]) is a Seoul-born columnist and journalist; he has degrees from the US and China.

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