In a rare interview with Kyodo News Agency in Pyongyang, North Korea's number two official denied rumors that the country's supreme leader Kim Jong Il is gravely ill, insisting that "there are no problems."
Kim Yong Nam, the country's ceremonial head, made the comments in a rare interview, which indicated how important the secretive country thought it was to deny the rumors.
But the denial did not prevent continued speculation a day after the North Korean leader's unexpected absence Tuesday at the ceremony celebrating the 60th anniversary of North Korea's founding, a major event that he had been expected to attend.
The South Korean president's office today said Kim is believed to be recovering from an apparent stroke, repeating a report from U.S. officials out of Washington Tuesday.
U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told ABC News Tuesday that American intelligence sources believe Kim may have suffered a stroke. The officials said Kim's absence at Tuesday's parade seemed to reinforce those indications.
Sources told ABC News that they believe, however, that the reclusive North Korean leader is still alive.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino would not confirm the reports Tuesday.
"I've seen the reports, but I don't have anything for you on it," she told reporters.
Though experts remain cautious, several agree that the latest rumors about Kim's deteriorating health appear credible, because Kim's unscheduled absence at the long-anticipated 60th anniversary parade is highly unusual and raises legitimate questions about his health.
"There are some reliable sources that he collapsed earlier in August. We really don't know, unless others in the intelligence community have knowledge of things that we aren't aware of," said Ambassador Wendy Sherman, who oversaw North Korea issues as a special adviser under the Clinton administration.
"The thing that makes this slightly more credible is that [Kim] didn't show up at the 60th anniversary. He has shown up at every previous celebration, and this time he's broken a well-worn habit," Sherman said.
Kim, who is known to suffer from diabetes and heart disease, was expected to be an integral part of the military parade celebrating the anniversary.
Speculation about his illness also came after South Korean reports that he may have suffered a stroke, and that five Chinese doctors visited North Korea last week. Most top North Korean officials, with the exception of Kim who does not like to fly, typically make the trip to Europe for medical treatment.
Samuel Kim, a professor at Columbia University, said, "The fact that he has not shown up at the 60th anniversary is the most serious piece of circumstantial evidence and appears more credible than all the other rumors we've heard. Many rumors about Kim do turn out to be false, but we've known that he has ongoing health problems."
Former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg and other policy experts warn that it is premature to jump to conclusions.
"The time calls for patience and contemplation and good judgment rather than running around saying the sky is falling," he said. "But [his absence at the parade] raises legitimate questions that we are just not in a good position to answer right now."