North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has life-threatening pancreatic cancer, a news report said yesterday, days after fresh images of him looking gaunt spurred speculation that his health was worsening following a reported stroke last year.
The 67-year-old Kim was diagnosed with the cancer around the time he was felled by the stroke last summer, Seoul’s YTN television reported, citing unidentified intelligence officials in South Korea and China as saying the disease is “threatening” Kim’s life.
Pancreatic cancer is usually only discovered in its final stage, and considering Kim’s age, he is expected to live no more than five years, the report said.
South Korea’s spy agency said it could not confirm the YTN report. Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said he knew nothing of the report. Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young also said he had no information.
Kim’s health is a focus of intense media speculation due to concerns about instability in the North and a possible power struggle if he were to die without naming a successor. His third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, has widely been reported as being groomed as heir, but the regime has made no announcement to the outside world.
The report came after Kim Jong-il made a rare public appearance at an annual memorial for his late father Kim Il-sung last week. It was only the second state event he has attended since the reported stroke.
TV footage showed him markedly thinner and with less hair. He also limped slightly, and the sides of his tightly pursed lips looked imbalanced in what were believed to be the effects of a stroke.
The images touched off speculation that he could have other health problems.
South Korea’s spy agency has long suspected that Kim has diabetes and heart disease.
North Korea experts said the latest images of Kim show he is still fit enough to rule.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, said he doubts the YTN report about pancreatic cancer because the number of Kim’s “field-guidance” trips to workplaces has increased significantly this year.
“Would he be able to carry out such brisk activity while having pancreatic cancer?” Yang said.
In related developments, top nuclear negotiators for China and South Korea met yesterday on how to carry out UN plans to punish North Korea for its nuclear test in May and how to resume stalled talks on the country’s nuclear program, an official said.
Pyongyang quit the six-nation nuclear negotiations in April in anger over a UN rebuke of its long-range rocket launch. It has since further ratcheted up tensions, conducting its second nuclear test and a series of banned missile launches.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei (武大偉), Beijing’s nuclear envoy, has been visiting other participants in the nuclear talks to discuss how to break the deadlock.
In Sweden, a visiting South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called for a get-tough approach.
“The reason we are being tough like this is to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program and come to the negotiating table,” Lee told South Korean reporters traveling with him on a trip to Europe, Yonhap news agency said.