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Thursday, March 10, 2011     GET REAL

Kim Jong-Il hits the bunker as Mideast heats up

By Lee Jong-Hean, special from

SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, who made a brisk series of public appearances early this year, has dropped out of sight since late February at a time when civil uprisings have ousted long-serving dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and is now threatening Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.


Government officials and analysts here say Kim’s 10-day absence signals his fears that the Arab world’s demands for reform could spill into the North which has been ruled by the Kim family for the past six decades.

“Kim Jong-Il seems sensitive to the toppling of long-serving dictators in the Arab world and is struggling to take measures to prevent similar public protests in his country,” a government official said. Kim, who made on-spot guidance tours every other day since January disappeared from public view for ten days from Feb. 17 to Feb. 27, according to intelligence sources in Seoul.

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The ailing leader made as many as 25 public appearances early this year to lay the foundations for his youngest son to succeed him and fulfill his much-touted promise to bring “prosperity” to the destitute country by next year.

“I think the core of the leadership knows of the situation in the Middle East. It has obviously prompted the regime to take preventative measures,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The North Korean people long insulated from outside information seem still not aware of pro-democracy revolts in the Middle East, but more and more they will hear about what’s happening there,” he said.

Kim is thought to have been unnerved at the news that the fate of Gadhafi is hanging in the balance, following the ousting of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Libya and Egypt were the two main Middle East nations with which the North has maintained friendly ties.

Gadhafi travelled to North Korea in 1982 and signed a bilateral cooperation agreement under which the North exported various types of weapons to the Northern African regime that had been hit by sanctions. The North also helped Libya train its troops and security forces. Largely due to that close friendship, the North has not yet evacuated its 200 workers dispatched to construction site in Libya, according to government sources in Seoul.

Ha Tae-Kyung, the head of Open Radio for North Korea in Seoul, said that if revolts took place in the North, Kim Jong-Il could suffer the same fate as Gadhafi.

“Part of the military would join forces with civil protesters against the Kim regime seeking a third generation of family rule despite deepening economic hardship,” he said.

Kim, who turned 69 on Feb, 26, succeeded his late father and national founder, Kim Il-Sung who is still revered as the “Eternal President.” The two Kims have ruled the isolated nation for 63 years since the foundation of the Stalinist regime in 1948 on the basis of strong personality cult and brutal political oppression.

If Kim does hand over power to his youngest son, he will take the dynasty into its seventh decade.

Kim ended the 10-day hiatus with a visit to an army unit where he watched a concert by a military orchestra. “The unit is believed to be one of Kim’s personal bodyguards,” a source close to the North said. The North’s shift to a hostile stance toward South Korea following a months-long charm offensive came just after Kim’s resumption of public activity, indicating his solution was to boost hard-line credentials within the military.

“Loyalty of the military is vital to the survival of the Kim dynasty,” the official said.

Kim has vanished from public view before when he may have felt a sense of personal insecurity.

When the U.S.-led war started in Iraq in 2009, Kim vanished from public view for about 50 days, sparking speculation he was hiding in a bunker for fear of attacks. He also suspended public activity for 40 days after the country fired a long-range missile in July 2006 which raised the likelihood of military retaliation from the outside.

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