Page last updated at 11:23 GMT, Wednesday, 10 September 2008 12:23 UK

North Korea denies Kim is unwell

Kim Jong-il (undated image, released by Korean Central News Agency in August 2008)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was absent on Tuesday

North Korea has rebuffed reports that leader Kim Jong-il is seriously ill, following his failure to appear at an important military parade.

North Korean diplomat Song Il-ho told Kyodo news agency such reports were "worthless" and a "conspiracy plot".

South Korea's intelligence agency told MPs that Mr Kim had suffered a stroke but was likely to fully recover.

He is not yet able to appear in public, but is still capable of running the country, MPs were told.

The reclusive leader was absent from a parade in Pyongyang on Tuesday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the foundation of North Korea.

Abnormal indications

The North Korean diplomat in charge of relations with Japan, Song Il-ho, was the first Pyongyang official to dismiss claims that the leader was seriously ill.

N Korea's "Dear Leader" is a reclusive character, at the centre of an elaborate personality cult
Succeeded his father Kim Il-sung, founder of North Korea, who died in 1994
Mr Kim is seen in the West as both a master manipulator, and delusional madman
He has a reputation as a drinker, a playboy and a hypochondriac

He told Kyodo news agency that Western media frequently reported falsehoods about his country.

The communist state's deputy leader, Kim Yong-nam, was later quoted, again by Kyodo, as saying there was "no problem".

But outside the secretive nation speculation continues about Mr Kim's health.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak convened an unscheduled meeting on Wednesday with his senior secretaries to discuss "countermeasures to a possible serious illness of the North Korean leader", a source at the presidential office said.

A ranking intelligence officer from the president's office in Seoul said a number of "unusual goings-on" had been detected, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported.

North Korean parade
Pyongyang's second-most senior politician oversaw Tuesday's parade
An intelligence official reportedly told South Korean MPs that Mr Kim had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage which caused a stroke, but added that he was in a "recoverable condition."

The 66-year-old leader is said to be too ill to appear in public, but remains conscious and able to lead the country.

The BBC's John Sudworth, in Seoul, says rumours were already rife even before Mr Kim missed Tuesday's military parade.

But Mr Kim's absence will prompt further speculation, especially given the symbolic importance of the anniversary and the fact he oversaw similarly triumphant occasions for North Korea's 50th and 55th anniversaries.

Mr Kim has not been seen in public since early last month. He has been known to disappear from public view for extended periods before, only to reappear unheralded later.

This time, however, the rumours of ill health have been given added impetus by news that a team of Chinese doctors was recently summoned to examine him.

Food shortages

Concerns about Mr Kim's health come amid an impasse in international efforts to urge North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme.

North Korea agreed in February 2007 to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for aid and diplomatic concessions, but the progress of the deal has been far from smooth.

After a long delay, Pyongyang handed over details of its nuclear facilities in June 2008.

In return, it expected the US to remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which the US has yet to do, so the North now appears to be starting to reassemble its main nuclear plant.

Meanwhile the World Food Programme estimates that North Korea is suffering from a serious food shortage.

The North has relied on foreign assistance to help feed its 23 million people since its state-controlled economy collapsed in the mid-1990s.

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