Is Kim Jong Il dead? Yes, North Korea’s “Dear Leader” is no more, having passed away in the fall of 2003, writes Waseda University professor Toshimitsu Shigemura in Shukan Gendai (Aug 23-30).
A one-time Mainichi Shimbun journalist posted in Seoul, Shigemura is introduced by the magazine as a leading authority on the Korean Peninsula. His latest book, released this month, is titled “The True Character of Kim Jong Il.”
If true, the implications are potentially vast. Among them: former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s summit partner during one or both of his landmark visits to Pyongyang in 2002 and 2004 was not Kim himself but a dummy—the stand-in Shigemura claims has been fooling the world for at least five years.
A dictator having one or multiple doubles is a familiar notion since Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was shown to have deployed them. But Saddam was alive at the time. Kim, in Shigemura’s scenario, was not manipulating a look-alike; he was replaced by one.
Of course it’s fantastic—but in North Korea, says Shigemura, fantasy and reality are not mutually exclusive. “Japanese common sense cannot take the measure of North Korea’s uniqueness,” he writes. “For example: Kim came to Tokyo six times in the 1980s.”
Then as now, North Korea and Japan had no diplomatic ties. Kim, then heir to the throne under his father, “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung, apparently traveled incognito by ship. His purpose: to take in the magic shows staged by magician Hikita Tenko at the upscale Cordon Bleu show pub in Akasaka.
Shigemura cites as sources (without naming them) several people close to Kim’s family. He hears from them that Kim’s diabetes took a turn for the worse early in 2000. From then until his supposed death three and a half years later he was confined to a wheelchair.
Was the flurry of diplomatic activity in which the world saw Kim engaged during those years mere sleight of hand? The “hermit kingdom” seemed all of a sudden to grow remarkably outgoing. In June 2000 Kim hosted the historic summit with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. The following month, he received Russian President Vladimir Putin. In October his guest was U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In January 2001 he visited China; in August, Russia. In September 2002 there occurred the first summit with Koizumi, culminating in Kim’s admission, after decades of denial from Pyongyang, that North Korean agents had kidnapped Japanese nationals. August 2003 saw the launch of the Six Party talks aimed at North Korea’s nuclear disarmament.
“Then suddenly,” writes Shigemura in Shukan Gendai, “the pace slows.”
The second Kim-Koizumi summit, in 2004, lasted all of 90 minutes. Scheduled meetings with other foreign dignitaries were abruptly canceled. Kim’s retreat from the public eye was almost total. State television in October 2003 showed him touring a collective farm, but mention of the date of the visit was conspicuously absent.
Kim’s family, meanwhile, was in a state of upheaval. His wife died—of breast cancer, said official reports; assassinated, according to persistent rumors. His favorite sister, a high-ranking Communist Party official, suddenly moved to Paris. Her husband lost his post. Clearly something was afoot.
In the spring of 2006, says Shigemura, American spy satellites succeeded in photographing Kim. An analysis of the photographs led to an astonishing conclusion: Kim had grown 2.5 cm!
“Recently,” Shigemura proceeds, “someone who was in contact with a Kim family member told me he heard the family member say, ‘There’s been a promise not to decide on Kim’s successor so long as the current shogun is alive.’”
“‘Shogun’ was Kim’s nickname,” Shigemura explains “If Kim were alive, the family member would simply have said, ‘the shogun’—not ‘the current shogun.’ The stress on ‘current’ seems to suggest that the person in question is someone other than Kim Jong Il.”
Shukan Gendai asks a government official who helped plan Koizumi’s Pyongyang visits what he thinks of all this. His reply: “Rumors of a dummy Kim began circulating after the summit. Some of us said we should have Kim’s voice prints analyzed. But if we did that and proved the prime minister had been conferring with a double, it could have destroyed the Koizumi administration. So we didn’t proceed.”