[Viewpoint]Don’t make funeral plans just yet

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[Viewpoint]Don’t make funeral plans just yet

The rumors that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is having health problems have spread both here and abroad. Due to North Korea’s power structure, which centers on a single man, Kim’s health has a direct relation on the future of North Korea’s socialist system.
Kim Jong-il has suffered from chronic illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease, for a long time.
Therefore, rumors about his illness are neither news nor a subject of special interest.
To be news, the rumor should at least be that Kim Jong-il has a “grave” or “worsening health condition.”
There were foreign press reports recently that Kim Jong-il flew in some expert German doctors to Pyongyang to get heart surgery.
It was also reported that the U.S. Department of State is concerned about Kim’s health.
However, we cannot say that a major problem has taken place in North Korea or will take place just on the basis of a rumor that Kim Jong-il underwent surgery.
After all, if it is true that Kim received surgery recently, there is also the possibility that his health is now better than ever.
For example, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney had his first heart attack when he was a Congressman in 1978, and has suffered from heart disease since then. He received heart surgeries in May 2000 and June 2002, but he is still serving as incumbent vice president.
Ultimately, we should pay attention to whether Kim Jong-il can carry out his duties under normal conditions.
As if to wipe out the rumors, Kim Jong-il inspected military bases in Ja-gang Province and North Pyeong-an Province and also visited various factories in the field to give on-the-spot instructions starting in the early part of June.
The National Intelligence Service also refuted the rumor by saying, “If Kim Jong-il received surgery in May, as was reported by the press, how could he give on-the-spot instructions in June?” I think there is some truth in that.
Even if Kim did receive surgery, the fact that he appeared in public recently tells us he has recovered enough to carry out his normal duties.
Some people have theorized that North Korean authorities fabricated his recent appearances. Considering the peculiar situation of the press in North Korea, where the national authorities possess and control all of the media organizations, it is not impossible.
However, we have to be reminded of the past.
Kim Jong-il did not make on-the-spot instructions during the Iraq War.
Immature speculation abounded, the dominant theory being that he was a “coward,” probably seeking refuge somewhere because he feared bombing raids by the U.S. Air Force.
From the position of North Korean authorities, this was a great insult to “the supreme commander” and “the leadership of the revolution.”
Despite this, there were no reports in the North Korean press, or announcements from the North Korean authorities that Kim Jong-il had made any appearances.
If it is normal in North Korea for government authorities to fabricate news, why didn’t they fabricate it back then?
Of course, it might be true that Kim Jong-il’s health is not normal. Considering his symptoms and the recent press reports, it is probably true that he does have serious problems.
Considering his physical age of 65, he has naturally reached a point where he should have a successor prepared.
However, his health problems don’t appear serious enough for him to have a problem carrying out his duties.
Kim Jong-il will surely think about his successor now. Instead of designating someone, however, it seems that he will induce bona fide competition among his children so he can help them develop leadership skills.
On the other hand, considering the limits and obstacles that his possible successors will confront, such as a lack of charismatic leadership, Kim will concentrate on laying a foundation for a power structure fit for the next generation.
A “constitutional chieftain system” is part of this plan. It aims to maintain a chieftain as head of the nation, which has been maintained by the leadership of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il, by stipulating in the Constitution that “the supreme leader of the nation” will entrust practical policy matters to the “faithful” core elite groups in the party, government and the military.
There is also the possibility that North Korea will choose a power structure that reflects the merits of its existing “one-man rule” system and a new “collective” leadership system.

*The writer is a senior researcher of the Institute for National Security Strategy. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Ki-dong
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