BEIJING // A report claiming that Kim Jong Il, North Korea's leader, has cancer has set off a fresh debate about his health as well as the ability of his heir apparent to lead the world's most reclusive nation. Citing unnamed intelligence sources, YTN, South Korea's cable news broadcaster, reported from Beijing that Mr Kim, 67, has pancreatic cancer, which is often fatal and commonly discovered only at a terminal stage, and was diagnosed around the time he had a stroke last summer.
Mr Kim's health has been the object of intense international attention because of concerns about the famine-stricken country's instability and a possible power struggle. Recent pictures from North Korea's official news agency showed him looking thinner and wearier and with less hair on his head, despite the fact that they were all carefully chosen for public viewing. "Kim Jong Il's health has become significantly deteriorated, although we are not sure whether he really suffers from pancreatic cancer as was reported," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at Sejong Institute, a security think tank just outside Seoul.
A well-placed South Korean government official in Beijing, when reached for confirmation, said Mr Kim's condition was "yet to be verified". The South's unification ministry and foreign ministry all said there was "no information". According to the American Cancer Society, about 20 per cent of people live at least one year after they discover they have pancreatic cancer but that fewer than five per cent survive as long as five years.
Last weekend, South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported the CIA had notified its South Korean counterpart that Mr Kim is likely to die in five years. The newspaper reported, citing an unnamed government source, that the CIA recently conducted a "thorough" analysis on the health status of Mr Kim and concluded that there is a 71 per cent chance he will die within five years. This is the first time the US intelligence agency has conducted a specific prognosis of Mr Kim's life expectancy, based on his age, medical history, physical state and the timing of his stroke. The CIA also was reported to have used a brain scan of Mr Kim that it received from the South Korean intelligence agency.
"All this information is adding up to something that is obviously and gravely serious about Kim's health," said Tim Peters, a North Korea expert in South Korea who founded Helping Hands Korea, an aid organisation that helps North Korean refugees to seek asylum. The reports about Mr Kim's health have sparked debate about whether the father-to-son power transition of the North's leadership will go smoothly and whether the heir apparent is up to the task. The ailing Mr Kim, it has been reported, picked his third and youngest son, Jong Un, as heir.
Analysts say the transition process itself will proceed without a glitch, but problems could follow. "The power transition will be smooth. Very little chance for something to go wrong. No coup. Jong Un has quite a stable group of generals supporting him," Mr Cheong said. Mr Peters agreed. "For the last 60 years, a single monolithic system has been very carefully put together in order to support a single leader, and that has always been a leader from the Kim family," he said. "Even if some type of resistance or disagreement or dissidence happens within the hierarchy, that person will be very quickly eliminated and filtered out."
Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Il's brother-in-law, has been frequently mentioned by some as privately hiding an ambition to snatch the crown. But Mr Cheong dismissed the notion. "Such a view is flawed. Jang critically didn't have the support from the Worker's Party and the military." Han Suk-hee, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Yonsei University, said Jong Un's two older brothers are also out of the picture. "If you visit Jong Nam's house in Macao, you will know why he's not interested in politics. He has three luxurious houses and a beautiful wife. He's very wealthy. And he prefers to live as a 'free man'."
Experts also say the second son, Jong Chul, does not pose a threat because of health problems caused by suspected steroid use. Observers also said both Jong Nam and Jong Chul have negligible power bases. Analysts say the real test will come after Jong Un takes power. "It all depends on Jong Un's leadership. Although he is young, he is known to be a tough cookie," Mr Cheong said, adding that although he was known to be "conservative", he had lived abroad for four years in Switzerland and "he saw the outside world and knows what it is like. So, he is not likely to believe that if he chooses capitalism, the country will collapse. It's possible that he turns out to be a reformer."
Mr Peters is less optimistic. "I think it's impossible to imagine that Jong Un has any kind of capability or leadership training that would even begin to help him to address the enormous problems facing North Korea," he said. "At the very most, he would just be a symbol of succession. "There would be other powers behind the crown to actually pull the levers of power and make actual decisions." Chinese analysts are much more cautious, pointing out that although Jong Un has reportedly been picked as Kim Jong Il's heir, the North Korean government has yet to publicly announce it. "After all, it's all speculation," said Jin Jingyi, a North Korea expert at Peking University.
Xue Li, a security analyst at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said: "These are all predictions. But China wants North Korea to go through a stable change. And it's likely that that's how it's going to happen." email@example.com * With additional reporting by the Associated Press