Kim Jong Il, has been so unwell that he
needs an assistant to carry a chair for him
Kim Jong Il, North Korea's reclusive leader, has been so unwell that he could not walk more than 30 yards without a rest, western governments have been told.
Diplomats in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, are increasingly convinced that the 65-year-old dictator needs heart surgery to restore his apparently flagging health. He has had to be accompanied by an assistant carrying a chair so that, wherever he goes, he can sit and catch his breath.
Speculation about the state of Kim's health was heightened when a team of six doctors from the German Heart Institute in Berlin flew to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, for eight days last month. Kim, who also suffers from diabetes, was believed by diplomats to have been among those on the list for treatment by the combined medical and surgical team. But a spokesman for the German team said they had only treated three labourers, a nurse and a scientist.
Kim's public appearances have been curtailed this year and he has appeared in public only 23 times, compared with 42 times at the same point last year - an indication, observers say, of his declining health. The suggestion that he underwent an operation offered an apparent explanation for his recent month-long disappearance from public view.
Kim Jong Il has ruled the North - one of the most isolated and tightly controlled regimes in the world - since his father, the country's founder, Kim Il Sung, died in 1994. He became the heir apparent to his father in 1974 at the age of 32, well before the senior Kim's death two decades later.
His illness may also explain why Kim has appeared keen to tackle the question of his succession, putting two of his sons through their paces to decide which is best suited to take over.
He is reported to have taken Jong Chul, 26, and Jong Woon, 23, on a series of military inspections to ascertain who performed best. His eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, 36, is out of favour after being deported from Japan six years ago for trying to enter the country on a forged passport.
Some observers predict, however, that his eventual death might be followed by a collective leadership by military figures, ending his family's dynastic power over the impoverished communist state and paving the way for it to abandon its nuclear weapons programme and open up to the rest of the world.
A spokesman for the heart institute, said it was the first time that it had sent German doctors to North Korea. But high-ranking North Korean officials are routinely treated by foreign doctors and Kim's family members and officials have been treated in Russia, Switzerland and Germany.
According to reports in North Korea, a team from Berlin visited last year and operated mainly on small children, but also treated Kim's brother-in-law, Chang Sung Taek. He had been due to visit Germany earlier this year for a follow-up operation, but was denied an entry visa because of UN sanctions aimed at prohibiting foreign trips by North Korean officials believed to be involved in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
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