WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il might have suffered a serious health setback, amid reports that the 66-year-old dictator failed to appear at an important celebration of his country's anniversary.
An intelligence official said it appeared that Kim "has suffered a health setback, potentially a stroke." The official said the episode was believed to have occurred in the last couple of weeks, noting that U.S. officials are watching the development closely because of the far-reaching effects it could have on North Korean affairs.
Kim was not shown attending a military parade yesterday marking the 60th anniversary of the country's founding, an event over which he would normally have been expected to preside. North Korea's state media was silent about his absence from the parade, a relatively low-key ceremony that unexpectedly lacked much of North Korea's trademark military display, though still took on a decidedly martial flavor.
In a broadcast monitored in Seoul, Korean Central Television showed North Korea's No. 2 leader and other officials and military officers atop a viewing stand. Kim was not shown.
A South Korean newspaper reported that Kim had collapsed Aug. 22 but also said there did not appear to be a panic over his health in the capital, Pyongyang.
Kim's health is closely watched because he has no clear heir and the regime could collapse with his death. He is visibly overweight, walks with a slight limp, and is reported by South Korean intelligence to suffer from diabetes and a heart condition.
Kim's prolonged illness or death could have an important effect on the current international effort to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons. North Korea's military is strongly opposed to the country surrendering such arms, and analysts believe its influence would grow if Kim were sidelined or dead.
However, some observers expressed caution about the latest reports of ill health.
"He is going to die sooner or later, and eventually one of these reports about his health will be true, but this one is probably much ado about nothing," said Andrei Lankov, a respected Pyongyang watcher and a professor at South Korea's Kookmin University. He said the extreme secrecy of the North Korean regime made it unlikely that either the United States or South Korea had received reliable intelligence about Kim's health.
The North Korean leader's last public appearance was Aug. 14, when he was reported by the state news service to have inspected a military unit. It is not unusual for the reclusive leader to disappear for months at a time, but his absence at yesterday's parade was noteworthy because it marked the country's anniversary.
Kim took over North Korea in 1994 after the death of his father, North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung, who was 82. The transition took place smoothly as the younger Kim had been groomed for decades as his father's successor.
Kim has had at least four children with three women, but none has emerged as the obvious candidate to take the world's first communist hereditary dynasty into a third generation.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.