WASHINGTON, Sept. 10 (UPI) -- North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il really is ailing, but he is far from dead yet.
That is the real message to be taken from the latest reports coming out of reclusive Pyongyang -- 58 years after the start of the Korean War still the most secretive and isolated capital on the planet.
"It appears to be true that Kim is ill,'' an officer of South Korea's National Intelligence Service told The Korea Times Wednesday. "However, our tentative conclusion is that his illness is not life-threatening. He suffered a stroke and underwent surgery, but is recovering.''
The NIS officer also told the newspaper that the 67-year-old Kim, the son and successor to North Korea's founding father, Kim Il Sung, was in no condition to carry out his responsibilities as chairman of the country's Defense Committee for the near future at the very least.
"Kim is old and his health is deteriorating. We are keeping a close watch on his condition,'' the South Korean intelligence officer said.
Speculation about Kim's health, or even survival, has abounded since he missed the annual Founding Day parade Tuesday to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the harsh communist tyranny his father created. The Times of London even went so far a few days ago as to claim that Kim actually died at least five years ago and a double had stood in for him ever since.
The North Korean government, of course, denies that Kim is dead, or even ill. But state-controlled media have not been able to report any public appearance by their leader since Aug. 14. Nor did they come up with any explanation why he didn't show up Tuesday for the 60th anniversary parade.
The South Korean Yonhap news agency also reported that Kim had experienced a stroke but that it was not fatal and that he was already responding to treatment and getting better.
"Kim suffered either a stroke or a cerebral hemorrhage, but is recovering," the intelligence agency said.
"Pyongyang is not in a state of administrative vacuum," Won Hye-young, the floor leader of South Korea's main opposition Democratic Party, informed journalists in the capital, Seoul, Wednesday after he attended a briefing of the entire National Assembly -- South Korea's parliament -- by NIS Director Kim Sung-ho on developments in Pyongyang.
"Although Kim is not fit enough for outside activity, he is conscious and able to control affairs," Won also reportedly said.
Yonhap reported that Won's account was confirmed by other participants in the National Assembly meeting.
"Kim was planning to attend the founding ceremony in the afternoon, but was unable to make it due to the aftereffects (of the stroke)," Won said.
Kim Jong Il has effectively run the North since 1980. His father died in 1994 of a heart attack at the age of 82.
South Korea's strongly pro-American President Lee Myung-bak is taking the developments in Pyongyang seriously. He convened his full National Security Council Wednesday for only the second time since becoming president to prepare countermeasures for whatever happens next in the North.
North Korea would be regarded by the world as a backwater except for two facts: It successfully tested a nuclear device underground in 2006, and it still maintains the fifth-largest standing army in the world.
Kim Jong Il had appeared, after long refusals, delays and prevarications, to accept a deal with the United States, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan to shut down its activities that could produce weapons-grade nuclear fuel. However, North Korea recently rescinded its agreement to the deal, accusing the United States of reneging on it.
Kim's illness therefore does not look likely to reduce tensions in Northeast Asia. On the contrary, it appears likely, at least in the short term, to make them worse.
First, if Kim recovers from his stroke and retains his power, he may prove far less cautious and far more unpredictable than he has been over the past 20 years.
Second, if Kim dies, it is not remotely clear who will succeed him. His eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, fell out of favor in 2000 over a widely publicized and embarrassing jaunt to Disneyland in Japan. His second son, Kim Jong Chul, is usually tipped as the most likely successor, but he is only 26 years old and is believed to suffer from a hormonal disorder. If North Korean military commanders take over, they may prove to be even more ignorant and fearful about the unknown outside world than the reclusive Dear Leader has been for so long.