Yesterday, Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s most widely read daily, reported that Kim Jong Il was not looking well. The sixty-six year-old North Korean leader, who was photographed on Tuesday shaking hands with China’s foreign minister, appeared thinner in his dark tunic. He had apparently suffered significant hair loss in the last two months, and, in what can only be good news to Western cosmetics companies, his skin appeared dry. Kim also looked haggard when he was not smiling. (The video of this event was the first taken of the reclusive autocrat since last April.)
Kim’s deteriorating appearance has given credence to reports that a team of German doctors performed heart bypass surgery on him in May. His diabetes is also getting worse, according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. He is believed to have taken steps to improve his health in recent years, although he still suffers from a lifetime of hard partying.
The South Koreans follow Kim Jong Il’s health with great interest. A sudden turn for the worse in his condition could throw the Kimist state—and the entire Korean peninsula—into turmoil. Rival factions in Pyongyang could struggle for power, making almost no scenario implausible.
What will happen the next time Kim’s health falters? North Korea survived the 1994 death of Kim Il Sung, its founder, because the Great Leader devoted decades to ensuring a peaceful transfer of power to his son, the current leader. Kim Jong Il was formally designated his father’s heir in October 1980, but the transition had been in the works since the early 1960’s.
Kim at one time entertained the notion of transferring power to his eldest son, Jong Nam, but apparently he changed his mind in 2001, when the younger Kim was nabbed at the Tokyo airport, traveling under a false Dominican passport with two women and one child. Jong Chol, one of his two younger sons, is reportedly cruel enough to be a North Korean leader, but suffers from afflictions that could make him unfit—including a potentially incurable disease and an obsession with Eric Clapton. In any event, Kim Jong Il has not devoted sufficient time to grooming a successor. (There have already been reports of palace shootings between rival supporters of the two potential heirs.)
Many say that the Chinese want to see a Beijing-style collective leadership replace the erratic Kim. China seems to have been working hard to build ties with different factions in the North Korean capital. As much as we may dislike Kim today—and there are certainly good reasons for doing so—the next leader in North Korea may be even more of a strategic nightmare.