The curious case of the disappearing despot

Mystery of leader's health undermines North Korea

The world's most heavily guarded frontier, the line that divides North and South Korea, is the focus of renewed tensions with confrontation looming on several fronts. From 1 December, the secretive North Korean leadership will close the land border between the Koreas at the few places where there are still openings.

The move is retaliation for hostile propaganda, notably the dropping of leaflets from hot-air balloons launched by South Korean civic groups with messages supposedly denigrating Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, and his despotic rule. Pyongyang is also stopping UN nuclear inspectors from taking soil and nuclear waste samples from its nuclear plant at Yongbyon.

The crossing closing is all the more significant because of intelligence reports suggesting that Mr Kim suffered a stroke in August which left him half-paralysed after brain surgery. Seeking to show that the Dear Leader is, on the contrary, in good health, the North Korean media claimed this week that he had attended two dramatic performances staged by the army and the navy, and waved cheerily to the actors.

Since no pictures were shown of Mr Kim enjoying North Korea's military arts festival, the effort to establish that he is healthy is proving counter-productive. When pictures have been released, it is unclear when and where they were taken.

Nobody expects another war but North Korea's very weakness is threatening. Its leadership, mysterious in its composition and strategy, has few cards in its hands. International attention focuses on its nuclear weapons, primitive though they may be. But without its nuclear programme the North, impoverished and ruined, has no bargaining strength. It may see the election of Barack Obama in the US as presenting opportunities that are not there. Its threats carry a certain weight because it is too weak to retreat from them.

The border between the Koreas has remained so heavily militarised even during periods when relations were less sour, that there is not much that either side need do to strengthen defences. On the southern side of the border, the banks of the Imjin river, where it faces North Korea, 40 miles north of the capital Seoul, are dotted with guardposts and high barbed-wire fences; further back are long-established military bases. The demilitarised zone (DMZ) around the village of Panmunjom was for long one of the showpieces of the Cold War, and to a great degree it still is. Signposts show where North Korean tunnels under the DMZ were discovered. From an outpost called Dora Observatory, Sergeant O Ti Wan of the South Korean army points to the North Korean city of Kaesong, overlooked by a tower which "stops all radio and television transmissions from the South".

Outside Qaesong are white buildings in the far distance which at one time promised to be one of the more hopeful signs of North-South co-operation. This was the establishment of a joint industrial zone where 35,000 workers from North Korea and 1,500 managers from the South, produce simple goods including pots and pans, watches and agricultural machinery. As we watched, a long convoy drove south out of the industrial zone carrying workers and finished goods.

But the zone may soon be abandoned. South Korean government officials were forced to leave in the summer, and last week the North said it would shut its border tight from 1 December. The North may also be reacting to the tougher stance towards it taken by the South Korean President Lee Mung-bak since he was elected in February. But the more conciliatory line taken by his predecessors never achieved much. A symbol is Dorasan station which opened in 2002 and was meant to link with North Korea. Its walls are covered with vivid signs of wraith-like hands grasping each other in friendship. A map shows the station as the first stop on a railway that would reach Peking and link with the trans-Siberian. Only one train uses the station, taking goods to and from an industrial zone a couple of miles away.

South of the DMZ, the rocky hills and glens are being rapidly suburbanised. The site of the last stand of the 1st Gloucestershire Regiment, the "Glorious Glosters", surrounded and forced to surrender after suffering heavy casualties and running out of ammunition in a three-day battle with the Chinese Army in April 1951, is in a narrow valley just south of the Imjin. Once an idyllic spot fenced in by steep hills, it now resounds to the echoes of rock being smashed as a new road is constructed immediately overlooking the memorial.

Kim Jong-Il: The lost leader

9 September Kim Jong-Il fails to attend military parade marking the 60th anniversary of North Korea's founding, prompting rumours that he suffered a possible stroke. He had not been seen in public since 14 August

31 October Absent from funeral of Pak Song Chol, honorary vice-president of Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly

2 November Official photos are released reportedly depicting Mr Kim at a student football match on the 62nd anniversary of Kim Il-Sung university, named after his father, the country's founder

5 November Official state media release new photographs reportedly showing Mr Kim posing for photographs during a visit to military units

16 November More pictures issued purportedly showing Mr Kim at a military art festival

Korea in numbers

2m Troops are stationed on both sides of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)

28,000 American troops deployed in South Korea, with many guarding the DMZ

49.05m Population of South Korea

23.3m Population of North Korea

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable