Editorial: North Korea’s stability at stake with ill leader

The health status of North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il is still a matter of speculation.

The South Korean intelligence service, which tends to keep up with such matters more reliably than any Western service, has told Korean legislative leaders it is likely the North Korean dictator had a stroke sometime in mid-August, but that he has been treated and has recovered enough to talk and walk.

There are no signs of unrest.

Speculation about Kim Jong-il’s health became rampant when he was not present last Tuesday for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the North Korean state. The regime generally takes such anniversaries very seriously. Many believed that if there were any way to prop up Kim, who is 66 or 67, and make him look reasonably coherent, he would have been there.

Kim Jong-il’s health would ordinarily not be of much concern to anyone in this country or the U.S. government, but for circumstances just now.
The United States and the countries surrounding North Korea have been involved in talks for years designed to get the “hermit kingdom” to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

After blowing up cooling towers in June at the country’s Yongbyon nuclear facility as a gesture of good will, North Korea has since backtracked and hinted it might resume the weapons program. Its complaint is the U.S. has not taken North Korea off the official sponsor-of-terrorism list.

Kim Jong-il took over the presidency of North Korea from his father, Kim Il-sung, the founding dictator, 14 years ago. But he had been groomed for the succession for years and the North Korean people prepared to accept him.

At this point none of Kim Jong-il’s three known sons (or anybody else) has been declared the likely successor. So North Korea’s neighbors are afraid a succession struggle might induce chaos in the country that could spill over into South Korea on one side and China on the other.

It may seem strange, but for the moment we hope this despicable dictator stays healthy enough to anoint a successor — or for various factions to maneuver in advance — and avoid too much instability in a regime that richly deserves to crumble.