Speculation is mounting that Kim Jong-Il, the leader of the hermit nation North Korea, has suffered a stroke and is gravely ill.
A US intelligence official today told reporters it appeared that the secretive North Korean leader has suffered a stroke, though she did not reveal her evidence. The speculation intensified after the man known as the Dear Leader failed to appear at an important national celebration yesterday that he would normally have been expected to attend.
"It does appear that Kim Jong-il has suffered a health setback, potentially a stroke," the official said in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Reports from South Korea suggested that the 66-year-old was taken ill late last month and that he was still too ill to appear in public. Quoting another unidentified official, this time one based in Beijing, one report suggested this was put as the reason for his absence from North Korea's 60th anniversary parade, which instead featured a scaled down celebration featuring a civil defence unit and ordinary citizens.
In sharp contrast, the ruler - who succeeded his father, Kim Il-sung following his death in 1994 - attended both the elaborate 50th and 55th anniversaries which featured a display of military hardware. "It's unclear what but something unusual seems to be transpiring," said an announcer on South Korea's MBC channel.
In the absence of Mr Kim, those who participated in yesterday celebrations had to make do by offering a statement of loyalty to him. In a joint statement, the country's main ruling bodies including the Workers' Party, the cabinet and the military said he had built a "powerful war deterrent that can safeguard the nation's survival."
It added: "If the American imperialists dare ignite the flames of war, we will mobilise all our powerful potentials to mercilessly punish the invaders and win decisively in our great showdown against the United States."
It is not surprising that the condition of Mr Kim, said to suffer from diabetes and a chronic heart condition, should be the focus of such intense speculation around the world. If he really is in failing health - and last night there was no confirmation of the US's claims - it could add further uncertainty to the relationship with one of the world's most isolated and unpredictable regimes.
The claims about Mr Kim's health come as relations between North Korea and the West have entered something a stalemate. Last November, in what was seen as a major diplomatic coup for the Bush administration, the North Korean regime agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons programmes in return for economic and political rewards from the United States and its allies.
North Korea promptly began disabling its Soviet-era nuclear plant in Yongbyon, north of the capital, Pyongyang. But last month the dismantling process stopped as North Korea complained that Washington had still not removed it from its official terrorism blacklist. It was said that the decision to halt the close-down of the plant was taken by the country's powerful military establishment, which had always opposed the deal brokered with the US, Russia, Japan, South Korea and China. When North Korean diplomats notified their US counterparts of the suspension, they did so in a note that explained the move was being taken "due to pressure from the relevant agencies".
Yesterday in Washington, the US official who claimed that the North Korean may be seriously ill, added: "What we do know is that he was not at the military parade. That is quite unusual and reinforces a lot of what we've been hearing."Reuse content