The mystery over Kim Jong Il’s hold on power deepened Sunday when he failed to make North Korea’s traditional New Year’s Day address to the communist nation.
North Korea’s state radio issued a three-word statement - “Happy New Year” - attributed to the son and designated successor of longtime North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, who died July 8.
Kim, 52, later visited an army barracks, his first public appearance since October.
He has not officially taken control of the reclusive country. That and his infrequent public appearances have raised questions about his health and possible internal challenges by military hard-liners upset over a nuclear deal signed with the United States in October.
He was not involved, at least directly, in the negotiations to release Bobby Hall, the American pilot held for 13 days after his helicopter was shot down Dec. 17 over North Korea.
When U.S. Sens. Frank Murkowski and Paul Simon visited Pyongyang three weeks ago and sought a meeting with Kim, they were told he was still in mourning for his father. The official 100-day mourning period ended in October.
The last time Kim appeared in public, he had lost weight. South Korean media reported recently that he is believed to need a kidney transplant, but the operation can’t be conducted because of liver damage from his reported heavy drinking.
There also has been speculation that he suffers from other ailments.
But on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, President Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, said he believed Kim was “ultimately” in charge, although the military has a lot of influence.
“There are different voices within the North Korean government, as there are in any government,” Lake said. “Ultimately I think those differences - I think - are resolved by Kim Jong Il.”
In his New Year’s Day visit to army barracks, Kim warmly congratulated the soldiers, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said in a dispatch monitored in Seoul.
Kim toured the barracks and was briefed on training methods, the report said. This was Kim’s first public appearance since October, when the military held a ceremony to pledge allegiance to the son after Kim Il Sung’s death.
The younger Kim has made only one known public address - two years ago when he was named supreme military commander. It consisted of one sentence: “May glory be with our revolutionary people’s army.”
Groomed for decades to take over from his father in the first father-son succession in a communist country, Kim has not assumed two top posts, state president and general secretary of the Workers Party, which were left vacant by his father’s death.
On Dec. 23, North Korean media did not mention if Kim was present at a national meeting held to honor him as supreme commander of the armed forces.
He did not show up at Saturday’s year-end government-communist party meeting, which all North Korean leaders customarily attend.
The elder Kim, whose reign began in 1946, made a public address every New Year’s Day except for 1966-70, setting out the government’s goals and philosophy for the coming year. All North Koreans were required to study the annual address in special classes.
This year, state radio said an important statement was forthcoming. Then Kim issued his three-word greeting, followed by the reading of a 33-minute editorial, which also was printed Sunday in the North’s major newspapers.
Then the radio, monitored by Radio Press in Tokyo, rebroadcast Kim’s father’s 27-minute address from last New Year’s Day.
South Korean officials said the editorial contained virtually nothing new.
It mostly focused on exhortations for people to rally around Kim, along with strong denunciations of capitalist rival South Korea, dimming hopes for better relations between the two Koreas this year.
The editorial was conciliatory toward the United States, describing the Oct. 21 nuclear accord as a “new landmark” that will resolve the nuclear problem on the Korean peninsula and improve the North’s relations with Washington.
The deal calls for North Korea to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear program, suspected of producing weapons-grade plutonium. In exchange, the North is to get two new reactors, worth about $4 billion, that produce far less plutonium, and better relations with Washington.