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North Korean Leader Had Surgery After Stroke, South Koreans Say
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SEOUL, South Korea — American and South Korean intelligence reports that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, suffered a stroke raise questions that the North’s neighbors have long feared asking. If Mr. Kim dies or is incapacitated, who is going to take over the world’s most isolated and unpredictable regime, now armed with nuclear weapons? And what will happen to a nation-church that has worshiped its “Dear Leader” as a god-like figure?

Mr. Kim suffered a stroke in mid-August but has recovered enough to talk and walk, South Korean lawmakers told reporters after receiving a briefing by the National Intelligence Service.

But Kim Sung-ho, the South Korean spy chief, told the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee that this was not the first time Mr. Kim had had an operation for a circulatory problem, though nothing else was known about past medical operations, the lawmakers said. There was no sign of unrest in the North, they were told.

“We have intelligence reports that after intensive treatments, his condition has considerably improved,” a spokeswoman of the spy agency said, without confirming the lawmakers’ comments.

There was “no problem” with Mr. Kim, Japan’s Kyodo news agency quoted North Korea’s No. 2 leader, Kim Yong-nam, as saying in Pyongyang, the North’s capital.

“We see such reports as not only worthless, but rather as a conspiracy plot,” another senior North Korean official, Song Il-ho, told Kyodo.

Mr. Kim, 66, long suspected of suffering chronic illnesses, was conspicuously absent from a parade on Tuesday to mark North Korea’s 60th anniversary. Following his absence, American officials said Tuesday that Mr. Kim was seriously ill and was likely to have suffered a stroke weeks ago.

Although both American and South Korean officials said it did not appear that Mr. Kim’s death was imminent, the episode prompted analysts to contemplate the prospects of a chaotic power struggle in case Mr. Kim does not recover enough to resume his tight grip on power.

Mr. Kim took over after his father, Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea, died of heart failure in 1994. Long before that, he had been groomed as a successor and was running important state affairs.

In contrast, none of his three known sons or his daughter have emerged as an obvious candidate to take the dynasty into a third generation. If Mr. Kim had intended to pick one but now finds his time running out, analysts both in and outside the Korean Peninsula said on Wednesday, the most likely situation would be the stakeholders in Pyongyang forming a collective leadership.

“The majority view now is that it will be a collective leadership with some member of the Kim family as a figurehead,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul. “But situations can easily go in an unpredictable direction. Many top generals and some civilian leaders will probably be overcome by their own power lust, so some serious infighting with unpredictable results is likely, too.”
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