Speculation that Kim could be seriously ill had been swirling for weeks, but intensified Tuesday when he failed to appear at a parade marking the 60th anniversary of North Korea’s founding.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service reported Wednesday that it has information showing Kim recently had surgery for an unspecified circulatory problem. His condition is thought to have improved and is “recoverable and manageable,” an agency official told South Korea lawmakers, reported the Associated Press.
Several media outlets had quoted unnamed officials in recent days as claiming that Kim — the man North Koreans call the “Dear Leader” — may have recently had a stroke. A South Korean official in Beijing told a South Korean newspaper that Kim collapsed last month.
The same newspaper reported last week that five Chinese doctors have been visiting Pyongyang in recent weeks to treat a North Korean official, possibly Kim.
There have been reports in the past that Kim suffered from diabetes and heart problems, but North Korean officials have disputed them.
On Wednesday, Song Il Ho, a senior North Korean diplomat, told Japan’s Kyodo News agency the reports are “worthless” and a “conspiracy plot,” and accused Western media of fabricating reports.
North Korea’s No. 2 leader and ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam, also told Kyodo that there is “no problem” with Kim’s health.
A senior U.S. official told the AP Tuesday that speculation had been circulating for weeks about the state of Kim’s health and his control over North Korea’s reclusive communist government.
That official said the United States has no independent confirmation that Kim is ill, but that Kim’s unusual absence at the anniversary parade appeared to back up reports that he has suffered a sudden health crisis.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called an unscheduled meeting of advisers Wednesday to discuss “countermeasures to a possible serious illness of the North Korean leader,” a source within the president’s office told the BBC.
The most recent health rumors began circulating in mid-August, just before North Korea announced it was suspending the disablement of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, a key step in a landmark nuclear agreement the country had negotiated with China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States.
According to media reports, North Korea’s military opposes the dismantling of the reactors and the terms of the nuclear disarmament agreement were being pursued under Kim’s direction.
On Aug. 26, Pyongyang’s official news agency said that the country would “consider soon a step to restore the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon to their original state as strongly requested by its relevant institutions.”
The U.S. administration denied any specific knowledge of Kim’s health situation Tuesday, though State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said there had been a decline in “outputs” from North Korea on the process surrounding denuclearization.
“We don’t necessarily have a good picture into the decision-making processes of the North Korean regime, but we can see very clearly outputs or lack of outputs,” he told reporters. “Over the past several weeks, we have not seen outputs in terms of their agreement to a verification regime.”
Kim, who is 66 and has controlled North Korea since 1994, is known for his secretive and sometimes eccentric behavior. North Korean state media has reported that Kim has piloted jet fighters, composed operas and hit 11 holes-in-one in the first round of golf he ever played.