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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

**Primary Teachers Needed Urgently in Southport**

£80 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: **Due to an increase in dema...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Nursery Assistant/Nurse all cheshire areas

£7 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: We are a large and successful recrui...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant We are curr...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London