North Korea abruptly postponed today what was billed as the country's largest political convention in 30 years, renewing speculation that the secretive country's supreme leader Kim Jong Il may be too sick -- possibly with diabetes -- to dominate the convention.
Experts have widely speculated that the meeting would be a way for Kim to promote his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his heir apparent.
But Good Friends, a welfare group based in Seoul, says the delegates from all over the nation are heading back to their hometowns after the convention was postponed "due to floods" and "due to lack of quorum."
The group, quoting a representative in Pyongyang who was waiting for the meeting to convene, said many participants could not travel to the convention "because the roads were disconnected by Typhoon Kompasu," which hit the nation on Sept. 2.
As if to back up the speculation, Pyongyang's official state media reported today that dozens of people were killed, 8,000 homes damaged, communications cut off, and railroads disconnected by the typhoon.
But most North Korean watchers in Seoul believe the real reason for the delay is either because the senior communist party officials could not reach an agreement regarding the role of heir apparent Kim Jong Un, or because Kim Jong Il's health is seriously deteriorating.
"That typhoon hit two weeks ago. It just doesn't make sense that these most important party representatives could not arrive in Pyongyang when they had a whole week to travel," said Tae-Keung Ha, president of Open Radio for North Korea, a non-profit organization with close regular contacts with sources inside the North.
Speculation over Kim's health has been rampant since he reportedly suffered a stroke in August 2008. Given his unquestioned dictatorial power in a nation that poses a world nuclear threat, the status of his health has been a constant subject of a guessing game among analysts, medical experts, and intelligence agencies that scrutinize occasional photographs and rare videos of Kim.
In the latest photo taken on Aug. 27 in China, Kim appears strikingly old and frail with visible hair loss. Medical experts in Seoul believe the hair loss is not only from aging, but also a result of kidney dialysis and diabetes.
"Without testing his blood, we can't for sure say he's got diabetes," Chang Won Won, medical doctor at Kyung Hee Medical Center. "But just from the fact that he is a heavy drinking, smoking, 68-year-old losing significant amount of hair in a short period of time, we can confidently guess that his time is ticking."
Earlier this year, South Korea's Yonhap News pointed out Kim's hands has been darkening while his nail color was abnormally whitening. Citing numerous medical analysts, Yonhap said that indicates that Kim appears to be suffering from kidney malfunction which is one of the symptoms of diabetes.
Analysts have also been searching for evidence of the presumed stroke after two French doctors told French newspaper Le Figaro in December 2008 that they had treated the North Korean leader for cerebral infarction.
"If you look at the few available videos of Kim walking recently, he limps dragging his left leg. His left arm is also just hanging there without movement," said Chul-Joong Kim, medical consultant and chief medical correspondent for South Korea's major newspaper Chosun Ilbo.
Others have pointed out that when he appeared on North Korean television in July last year, Kim's lips were twisted, suggesting facial paralysis symptoms.
His apparent weight loss has also been a subject of many guesses. Some South Korean reports cited pancreatic cancer, while others infer that he is going through a rigorous diet program to prevent another stroke.
"All this is because the world fears what might happen post-Kim Jong Il," said Park Tae Gyun, professor of international studies at Seoul National University. "If he passes away without setting up a stable power structure surrounding his son, the international community would have to deal with hard line military forces with nuclear capability."
Wookyung Chloe Jung and Yijeong Lee contributed to this report