Conspicuous by his absence. North Korea is celebrating its leader’s 68th birthday, but the non-attendance of Kim Jong-il is sparking fresh debate about his leadership and likely successor.
Last seen in public back in April last year, Kim is said to be suffering from ongoing health problems after a suspected stroke in 2008.
Glorified with the official title “the kind-hearted father”, he has been in power now for almost 16 years.
He took over when his father and state founder Kim Il-sung died. Kim had already been annointed successor in 1974, giving him years to build his own power base.
But the birthday celebrations come as Asia’s only communist dynasty faces difficult times, with a rare public backlash against economic measures.
Kim’s eldest son, 39-year-old Kim Jong-nam, was once seen as next in line for the leadership. But he is said to have fallen out of favour after being deported from Japan trying to use a false passport.
A man believed to be him spoke to reporters in Macau in June last year. He denied claims of a defection to China and responded to reports that his younger brother was now his father’s likely successor.
“I told [sic] many times that the appointment of a successor is totally my father’s decision,” he said. “So he makes his decisions. He doesn’t need to talk to me or talk to another person, I think.”
The younger brother in question is 26-year-old Swiss-educated Kim Jong-un. Little is known about him and only pictures of him as a child have emerged in the Western media. It is reported North Koreans have never even been officially informed that Kim Jong-il has three sons.
This week’s birthday celebrations are being led by the state’s number two leader, who is reported to have made new overtures for dialogue with its long-time foe, the US. This amid growing international pressure to return to UN nuclear disarmament talks.