Questions about health as North Korean leader turns 68

Seoul, South Korea– North Koreans celebrated "peerlessly brilliant" leader Kim Jong Il’s 68th birthday Tuesday as questions persist abroad about his health and the future of the impoverished, nuclear-armed nation.

Depressed and chronically ill, Kim relies on rare, costly and sometimes outlawed remedies such as rhino’s horn and the bile of bear gall bladder, one South Korean official told The Associated Press. Another intelligence expert said North Koreans have gone twice to Beijing since 2008 to buy prized remedies, spending more than US$610,000 on one shopping trip.

Both spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of matters involving the authoritarian North Korean leader.

Though noticeably gaunt, Kim appears active and even cheerful in photos distributed by state media. Dressed in a heavy parka, he has been shown in recent weeks guiding construction of a hotel, visiting a mine and even watching a dance performance.

However, Kim is undergoing kidney dialysis and suffers from depression, said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the private Sejong Institute think tank outside Seoul, citing a "very credible" source. He declined to identify his source.

And though Kim’s health is a tightly guarded secret, US and South Korean officials believe Kim suffered a stroke in August 2008 that kept him out of the public eye for months. Kim’s lopsided smile in recent photos suggest he is still recuperating from a stroke.

Kim’s health is of keen interest because he leads his 24 million people with absolute authority. There are concerns that his sudden death would trigger instability and a power struggle in a country staggered by poverty and economic woes.

His declining health has forced him to hasten the process of handing over power, Cheong said. Kim has not publicly named any of his three sons to succeed him but is said to favor the youngest, Jong Un, believed to be in his mid-20s. Very little is known about the son: No photos of him as an adult have surfaced, and even the South Korean government was unsure until last summer exactly how his name was spelled in Korean.

The son also holds a position on North Korea’s powerful National Defense Commission, the intelligence expert told the AP–a strong sign he is being groomed for a key post in the regime.

Meanwhile, North Korean officials have traveled to Beijing to buy bear gall bladder, rhinoceros horn and musk, he said.

Traditional Oriental medicine, widely used across Asia, is particularly popular in North Korea, where Western medicine has been hard to come by since the isolated nation’s medical system collapsed in the mid-1990s.

"North Koreans like Western medicine but they rely on traditional remedies because Western medicine is scarce in the North," said Park Su-hyon, a defector from North Korea who now practices Oriental medicine south of Seoul.

Bile extracted from bears’ gall bladders, rhinos’ horn and musk are prized for treating strokes, said Choi Dong-jun, a professor of Oriental medicine at the Dongguk University Oriental Hospital in South Korea.

The three remedies are among the most expensive and hardest to find in Oriental medicine. The rhino is endangered, with one horn fetching upwards of US$5,000 in South Korea. Musk sells at nearly US$90 for 1/25th of 1 gram, Choi said.

In 2008, Kim’s eldest son, Jong Nam, bought some US$613,000 in rare remedies in Beijing, the intelligence official said, declining to identify the shop.

Officials have returned in recent months to stock up, the other intelligence expert said.

The National Intelligence Service, Seoul’s top spy agency, declined to confirm the alleged purchases, and an official at North Korea’s embassy in Beijing said he had no information.

There was no sign anything was amiss on the streets of Pyongyang. Braving the cold, families walked hand-in-hand to see a special exhibition of the leader’s namesake "kimjongila" flower, according to broadcaster APTN in Pyongyang.

Kim Song Ho of Pyongyang said he bore "infinite reverence" for the North Korean leader.

"Since we are led by our great general, we have a beautiful and worthwhile yesterday and today, and a bright tomorrow," he told APTN.

At a celebratory gathering of party and military officials Monday, Kim was as a "peerlessly brilliant commander," according to the Korean Central News Agency. No. 2 official Kim Yong Nam used the occasion to call for dialogue with the US, KCNA said.

One of Pyongyang’s most famous restaurants put snapping turtle on the menu in honor of Kim’s birthday, including turtle soup, raw dishes made of turtle heart, liver and roe, and turtle porridge. Kim himself provided "meticulous instruction" on how to breed and cook turtles, KCNA said. Asians consider turtles, a symbol of longevity, a nutritious delicacy.

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