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North Korean leader disappears amid missile tension

Zee News | August 9 2006

North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong-Il has disappeared from public view since the communist country test-fired missiles a month ago in defiance of international opposition.

The elusive Kim has shied away from the media spotlight since he visited a tyre factory on July 4, a day before the missile tests.

The media blackout spawned rumours in South Korea about possible internal troubles in the secretive regime or even health problems for Kim.

The North Korean leader is rarely out of the public eye in the reclusive nation where he has near god-like status.

His inspection tours of fields, factories and military bases have become a perennial staple of North Korea's state-controlled media.

Kim, 64, has stepped up morale-boosting visits to military bases since he inherited power from his father in 1994. More than 60 percent of his outdoor activities in recent years have been military-related.

Now experts are busily trying to fathom why Kim has been absent from the media, which even failed to mention his crucial homage to his late father Kim Il-Sung on July 8.

Despite sporadic absences from the spotlight -- including a 40-day disappearance in 2003 -- Kim had never missed his annual visit to the memorial place for his father who died in 1994.

Some rumours picked by the Dong-A Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, suggested Monday that Kim secluded himself to ponder on a series of internal and external problems.

"There have been no words on any abnormal situation involving North Korea's leadership, as Kim has been energetically engaged in inspections of field and other outdoor activities," said Paik Hak-Soon, a North Korea watcher at the Sejong Institute.

"The most persuasive theory is that he is immersed in thinking about how to handle the situation at a time when international pressure is growing over missile tests," he said.

Kim has defied international condemnation to purse nuclear weapons and further aggravated international tension by test-firing a long-range Tapodong-2 missile on July 5.

The UN Security Council condemned the missile tests and adopted a resolution imposing weapons-related sanctions on Pyongyang.

Paik said North Korea may have been surprised by the severity of international condemnation and by the fact that its key ally China supported the UN decision.

The missile tests deepened the isolation of the impoverished country, which has already been locked in a tense standoff with the United States over allegations that it was counterfeiting dollars and laundering money.

Paik said North Korea's media may have been quiet about Kim's location to protect his security.

"North Korea is oversensitive about the physical security of its supreme leadership, due to pressure from the United States," he said.

Kim's last disappearance in 2003 also coincided with heightened tension over the nuclear standoff, and analysts said then that the reclusive leader may have been concerned for his safety.

Last month, Kim was also reported to have married his 42-year-old secretary Kim Ok.

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