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Peeks at ailing Kim reveal black hole on NKorea

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's apparently serious illness has breathed new life into long-dormant plans from regional powers to prepare for when he loses his iron grip on power in the communist state.

world Updated: Nov 06, 2008 16:06 IST
Jon Herskovitz

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's apparently serious illness has breathed new life into long-dormant plans from regional powers to prepare for when he loses his iron grip on power in the communist state.

The reclusive North has been sending reports this week that all is well by showing the self-styled Dear Leader, rumoured to have been felled by a stroke in August, as active and in charge.

His suspected illness has jolted Washington, Seoul and others to revisit the risk of a mass exodus from the North after the demise of Kim, 66, whose late father is eternal president and developed the cult leadership that has dominated life in the isolated state for some 60 years.

The South is terrified its powerful economy will be dragged under by absorbing the impoverished and heavily armed North, with estimates saying the price tag could easily exceed $1 trillion - about the size of the South's economy.

"Contingency planning rose to the surface and became something we openly discussed," said one South Korean government official who asked not to be identified.

It is tricky to speculate on the reaction of the North's elite and its million-strong army that has a mass of artillery trained on Seoul, which North Korean state media regularly promises to turn to rubble.


In the 1990s, Washington and Seoul began drawing up plans called Concept Plan 5029 and Operation Plan 5029 for the collapse of the North. Pyongyang called the plans "an intolerable provocation" which showed intent to invade it.

That was enough for left-leaning South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun to largely end cooperation on the issue when he took office in 2003 with a policy of drawing closer to his neighbour.

Roh was replaced in February by conservative Lee Myung-bak, who pledged to get tough with the prickly North and mend ties with his US ally, strained under his predecessor.

South Korean media said Washington approached Lee's government last month to help again set up a plan of action in the event of Kim's fall. Earlier South Korean contingency plans, leaked three years ago, estimated the North could overrun Seoul within 16 days without US help.

If Kim Jong-il's government suddenly collapsed, Seoul would try to establish an emergency headquarters in the North to rebuild its broken economy.


The north's reclusiveness means the outside world will have little idea of who might jockey for power if Kim's hold slips. Analysts say most of his own officials would also be in the dark.

Kim is surrounded by a tight-knit inner circle of senior cadres, most in their 70s or 80s and thought to be too old to mount any challenge for power.

Bureaucracies are structured like silos where information is rarely shared with other departments, making it near impossible for officials outside the inner circle to know what is going on.

"In such a stovepipe system, unless you have a high-level defector, the outside world is not going to get a picture of the internal dynamics," said Peter Beck, a professor at American University in Washington who specialises in Korean affairs.

An intelligence source said one change that may come due to Kim's illness is that he conveys instructions through his inner circle, meaning the outside world should pay attention to who is near Kim at state functions to gauge who is close to power.

Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst now a senior researcher on Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said: "If Kim is relatively healthy, as suggested by the photos released by North Korea this weekend, then rivals would attempt to intrude on Kim's power base at their own peril".

"It is uncertain, however, whether outside observers would be able to discern such changes," Klingner said in an e-mail.

Kim, groomed for years by his father to take over Asia's only communist dynasty, has not indicated who should succeed him.

Experts have said in the event of his sudden death, the most likely outcome would be a collective leadership with factions perhaps trying to align themselves with one of his three known sons to eventually take control.

First Published: Nov 06, 2008 15:48 IST