SEOUL — Thursday was another confusing day on the Korean peninsula.
Has North Korean leader Kim Jong Il named his youngest son to succeed him, as South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported?
Would it be his eldest son, as another local report said?
The National Intelligence Service, Seoul's top spy agency, could not confirm the reports, according to the Associated Press.
Such close scrutiny of Kim is common in the media, where fascination with the reclusive dictator with the Elvis hair is deepened by the unknown number of nuclear weapons he posseses.
That fascination was evident back in November, when Kim was shown in a photograph wearing flat comfortable loafers instead of his usual ten-centimeter-high elevator shoes. The shoe change was seen then as a sign that the 66-year-old leader was experiencing health problems that could endanger his leadership.
Rumors about Kim’s poor health had circulated since September, after he failed to attend a military parade marking the 60th anniversary of North Korea’s founding and stayed out of public sight for weeks. Local and global news organizations promptly launched a flurry of analyses as to whether Kim was fit enough to rule the hermit kingdom, or if the time had come for a transition in power.
But despite intense global speculation, most South Koreans are shrugging the rumors off, as they have with other news out of North Korea.
“People these days have so many things to think about, including how they’re going to make a living and get by,” said Kim Jiyeon, a 32-year-old office worker. "They don’t have time to think about North Korea that much because it just seems like such a distant issue.” She added that she believes the media’s analyses of the photographs were ridiculous and excessive.
“North’s Kim Capable of Brushing Teeth,” “Kim, Missing During Chuseok (one of the largest national holidays in both Koreas),” and “The Ongoing Kim Jong Il Mystery,” are just a few of the headlines that have plastered South Korean dailies since September.
Despite the tone of that coverage, the average South Korean failed to even blink when the North carried out its first nuclear test in 2006. When talk about Kim Jong Il’s deteriorating health emerged in 2007, people joked that he had actually died in 2003, and a look-alike was posing as the “Dear Leader.”
The indifference most locals show towards their reclusive neighbor comes from the half-century ceasefire shared by the North and South since the Korean War.
“There are people who still worry every time tension escalates between the two countries,” said Yang Moojin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. "But for those who don’t seem to care, it is mostly because they have faith that they will one day see peace and stability between the two Koreas. This comes from the policies based on reconciliation and cooperation carried out over the past decade."
New leadership could change things, of course. Among the numerous scenarios of what could happen in the North, some suggest North Korea will collapse if the “Dear Leader’s” health continues to deteriorate. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification refused to comment on the state of Kim’s health in an e-mail interview and said “there is nothing to discuss” unless Pyongyang makes an official announcement on the issue.
The North Korean leader is believed to have suffered a light stroke, although it is unclear as to whether he underwent surgery as a result, said Cheong Seong-Chang, director of the Inter-Korean Relations Studies Program at the Sejong Institute.
Most experts believe North Korea’s leader is fit enough to hold on to power for the next couple of years, but that the sudden stroke is likely to speed the selection of his successor, said Cheong. It was commonly believed that Kim would wait until 2012, the centennial of his father Kim Il Sung’s birth, to announce his successor.
But whatever happens, South Korean streets will most likely remain detached from the issue until the final moment comes. Even then, many locals may think it is yet "another one of those North Korean things."