U.S. thinks N. Korean leader is ill

Kim Jong Il runs every aspect of society in North Korea. His portrait watches over every building, every streetcar, every home in Pyongyang. And the so-called Dear Leader has been the undisputed power behind negotiations with the U.S. over the North's nuclear arsenal.

What happens when he's gone? U.S. officials said Tuesday they believe Kim had a stroke, and while his condition is unclear they are scrambling to figure out what is going on, to make contingency plans.

Pyongyang began adopting a hard-line stance toward the nuclear negotiations in mid-August, just as rumors about the 66-year-old Kim's health began.

“The bottom line is, if Kim dies, we potentially have a serious problem,” said Joel Wit, a former U.S. diplomat and one of the authors of the 1994 nuclear agreement with Pyongyang. “There could be the collapse of the central government, civil war between different factions, large-scale refugee flows, increasing instability of the security of weapons of mass destruction and pressures on all surrounding countries to intervene.”

A senior administration official, on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that U.S. officials believe Kim had a stroke. Early today, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that, according to an unnamed South Korean government official, Kim had suffered a collapse but was alive.

The U.S. has had a contingency plan for Kim's departure, but there has been little coordination with South Korea and China, North Korea's two most influential neighbors. Victor Cha, director of Asian Affairs at the National Security Council until 2007, said, “There is no agreed upon plan for how to deal with a collapsing North Korea.”

The biggest worry for the U.S. is what would happen to the hermit kingdom's cache of weapons of mass destruction. Pyongyang, which test-fired a nuclear weapon in October 2006, is believed by American intelligence agencies to have enough fuel for several nuclear weapons and an arsenal of chemical weapons.

Wendy Sherman, who was President Bill Clinton's point person on North Korea and now sits on the new congressional Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, said, “We don't know what's happening behind the curtain, and sometimes we don't even know what's going on in front of the curtain, and that is a serious issue.”