Washington Kim Jong Il was the man who wasn't there Tuesday, missing from his usual place on the reviewing stand for a national parade honoring the founding of North Korea. Intelligence officials think he is gravely ill, complicating the already troubled international effort to prod his nation to abandon nuclear weapons.
U.S. and other Western officials said Kim's absence from a military parade for the country's 60th anniversary lent credence to other information that the man North Koreans call the "Dear Leader" had been incapacitated, possibly by a stroke, during the past few weeks.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency late Tuesday cited an unidentified government official as saying Kim was alive but ill. The official said Kim appeared to have suffered a collapse, a term in Korean normally used to indicate a grave illness such as a stroke. However, the official said Kim was definitely still alive.
Japan's Kyodo News agency said a senior North Korean diplomat and a top government official denied reports that Kim was seriously ill, calling the reports a conspiracy.
Kyodo said Kim Yong Nam, North Korea's No. 2 official, said there was "no problem" with Kim. It offered no further details.
Kyodo also said it spoke late Tuesday in Pyongyang with Song Il Ho, North Korea's ambassador for normalization talks with Japan, and Song called the reports "worthless."
The 66-year-old Kim, who has been rumored to be in varying degrees of ill health for years, has not been seen since mid-August. Though he appears rarely in public and his voice is seldom broadcast, Kim has shown up for previous landmark celebrations.
"There is reason to believe Kim Jong Il has suffered a serious health setback, possibly a stroke," one Western intelligence official said. A senior U.S. official said fresh rumors had been circulating about Kim's health and his control over North Korea's highly centralized government.
A former CIA official with recent access to intelligence on North Korea said that even before Tuesday the agency was confident that reports of a health crisis were accurate.
The officials spoke anonymously to summarize sensitive intelligence.
The reclusive Kim took power in 1994 after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung. It was communism's first hereditary transfer of power, and both Kims are revered in a personality cult perpetrated by the country's authoritarian government.
To the outside world Kim is best recognized as a silent, waving figure with a bouffant hairdo and a quasi-military suit reminiscent of communist leaders of an earlier time.
Neither the White House nor the State Department would comment publicly on Kim's health, noting that the North Korean government is one of the most opaque and secretive on Earth.
But U.S. officials said privately they were concerned that Kim's apparently failing health jeopardized six-nation talks aimed at ridding North Korea of its nuclear weapons. The United States has been a wary partner in those talks, but their success is one of the Bush administration's signature foreign policy goals.
The talks are now stalled in a dispute over the North's obligation to allow intrusive foreign accounting of its known nuclear stockpile.
North Korea's powerful military is known to be opposed to the negotiations with China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States. Many analysts believed the process was continuing mainly due to Kim's support and his backing of moderates in the foreign ministry.
U.S. officials noted that shortly after the health rumors began to circulate in mid-August, North Korea started to adopt a tougher line in nuclear negotiations. The North first suspended disablement of its main nuclear reactor and then threatened to rebuild it, saying the U.S. had not kept a pledge to remove the country from a terrorism blacklist.
The reactor at Yongbyon was dismantled and its cooling tower blown up in June. In exchange, Washington was to strike North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism but only after Pyongyang agreed to a mechanism to verify that it was abandoning atomic weapons development. The North has yet to agree to the verification scheme.