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
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
"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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