North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (67) has life-threatening pancreatic cancer, South Korean broadcaster YTN said on Monday, citing information gathered from Chinese and South Korean intelligence sources.
The report raises questions about leadership in Asia’s only communist dynasty and who will make decisions concerning its nuclear programmes.
Kim’s health is one of the most closely guarded secrets in the reclusive state but he is widely thought to have suffered a stroke a year ago, although there has never been official confirmation.
YTN said the diagnoses of the cancer came around the same time as the stroke.
A gaunt Kim with thinning hair made a rare public appearance last Wednesday at a memorial for his father and state founder Kim Il-sung. The stark figure he cast furthered speculation he was still ill.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service could not immediately comment on the report, nor could US officials.
South Korean financial markets took the YTN report with caution, saying it cast a shadow over sentiment.
”Such news highlights South Korea’s geopolitical uncertainty and risks and one thing that investors hate is any uncertainty,” said Lee Kyoung-su, a market analyst at Taurus Investment & Securities.
North Korea has been raising tension in Asia through missile launches and a nuclear test on May 25 which was met by UN sanctions aimed at cutting off it arms trade, one of its few sources of hard cash.
South Korean officials said this military grandstanding was aimed at helping Kim build internal support as he prepares for succession, with his youngest son seen as the likely heir.
The US National Cancer Institute puts the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer at 5,5%. The pancreas makes insulin and other hormones which help the body use or store energy from food.
Pancreatic cancer occurs more often in people who have diabetes than in those who do not, it said, and Kim has been long thought to suffer from diabetes.
Kim Jong-il took power in 1994 when his father died at the age of 82. He assumed the title of general secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party and chairman of the National Defence Commission, but has never taken the title of president.
His youngest son Kim Jong-un, born in late 1983 or early 1984 and educated in Switzerland, is regarded as the most capable of Kim’s three known sons with striking resemblance to his father.
If Jong-un were to take over soon, he is likely to remain weak, vulnerable and at the mercy of the North’s old guard for years, experts said.
North Korea places great emphasis on seniority and the ruling elite around Kim Jong-il, mostly men beyond 70, are not about to take orders from the son, an intelligence source said.
Separately, Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei of China was holding talks in Seoul on Monday to try to resume six-way talks his country hosts aimed at ending Pyongyang’s nuclear arms programme in return for massive aid and diplomatic rewards. – Reuters