By Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington and Song Jung-a in Seoul
Published: November 13 2008 00:25 | Last updated: November 13 2008 00:25
The Chinese military has boosted troop numbers along the border with North Korea since September amid mounting concerns about the health of Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, according to US officials.
Beijing has declined to discuss contingency plans with Washington, but the US officials said the Peoples’ Liberation Army has stationed more soldiers on the border to prepare for any possible influx of refugees due to instability, or regime change, in North Korea.
US and South Korean intelligence agencies believe Mr Kim suffered a stroke in August that has left him paralysed on his left side, possibly severely enough to prevent him from walking. While the US believes Mr Kim remains in control for now, there are growing concerns about how long he can hold on to power if paralysed.
One official cautioned that the increase in Chinese troops was not “dramatic”, but he said China was also constructing more fences and installations at key border outposts. Wang Baodong, the Chinese embassy spokesman in Washington, said he was unaware of any increased deployments.
Speculation about the North Korean leader’s health has mounted since September when he failed to appear at a key military parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the repressive communist state. In an attempt to downplay concerns, state-run media released photos of Mr Kim visiting soldiers, but the CIA believes most of the images were either taken before the stroke, or have been altered with software.
US officials believe, however, that one recent photograph of Mr Kim – purportedly watching a football match from the stands of a stadium – appears authentic. But they say the fact that Mr Kim is sitting, with his left arm dangling, reinforces the conclusion that he is paralysed and having difficulty walking. The US believes North Korea would release video footage of Mr Kim to eliminate speculation about his health if that were possible.
The increased Chinese military presence and concerns about the health of the Stalinist leader come as international efforts to convince Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear programme run into obstacles that threaten to derail what President George W. Bush hoped would be a foreign-policy success.
In a ominous sign for the six-party talks, North Korea on Wednesday said international inspectors would not be allowed to take samples from its nuclear complex at Yongbyon. It added that it had slowed down the disablement of its nuclear reactor.
Mr Bush last month removed North Korea from the US terrorism list after Pyongyang agreed to allow inspectors into the country to verify a nuclear declaration it made earlier this year. Critics had previously warned that the vague language of the agreement would allow North Korea to escape from the commitment.
While the US previously insisted that North Korea had agreed to allow inspectors to take samples – to determine how much plutonium has been processed for nuclear weapons – Pyongyang on Wednesday rejected calls for sampling, saying the move would breach its sovereignty.
The dispute has complicated efforts by the six-party members – which include Japan, China, South Korea and China – from convening a meeting to finalise the details of the verification mechanism. One senior US official said North Korea was resisting efforts to have verification system formalised in a six-party document.
“The issue is not sampling, the issue is how to express it in a document that doesn’t involve their loss of face,” said a second senior official.
“The more serious problems going on in the six party talks have nothing to do with [sampling] but rather the continued bad North/South relations and the lack of a diplomatic process with the Japanese,” added the official. “Probably, there are also leadership problems in North Korea that are having an impact on decision making there.”
Japan opposed the US decision to remove North Korea from the terrorism list because it believed the move would reduce pressure on Pyongyang to resolve a dispute about Japanese citizens abducted over several decades by North Korean spies.
Washington has urged North Korea to fulfil a pledge to reopen an investigation into the abductees. But one Japanese source said there had been no progress on the issue, saying the “ball is in [Pyongyang’s] court”.
In another sign of deteriorating relations with North Korea, Pyongyang on Wednesday announced it would close its heavily fortified land border with South Korea from December. Tensions between the North and South have increased under President Lee Myung-bak, who pledged to take a tougher stance on North Korea than his predecessors and to link aid to progress in denuclearisation efforts.
One US official said North Korea was becoming increasingly bellicose towards South Korea because the decision by Seoul to cut off food aid was starting to impact the North Korean military, a key constituency for Mr Kim.
Two weeks ago, Pyongyang threatened to reduce the South to “debris” if Seoul did not stop anti-communist groups from launching pamphlets by balloon over the border. The leaflets contain statements about the health of Mr Kim, which North Korea cannot rebut because of the leader’s illness.
“The South Korean puppet authorities should never forget that the present inter-Korean relations are at the crucial crossroads of existence and total severance,” the North Korean news agency said in a statement.
Kim Ho-nyeon, spokesman for Seoul’s Unification Ministry, called the move “regrettable”, saying it would have a negative impact on efforts to improve inter-Korean relations. He urged the North to come back to the negotiating table to discuss implementing previous inter-Korean agreements from a “realistic” perspective.
A move by the South’s National Human Rights Commission this week to form a special committee on human rights in the North likely raised Pyongyang’s hackles after years of southern downplaying of reports of atrocities.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008