Sept. 10, 2008 — -- 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."
Nothing Confirmed About Health of Kim Jong Il
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."
Jim Walsh, an expert in international security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pointed out that concerned speculation by the international community as well as heightened sensitivity from North Korea may be exacerbated by what appears to be North Korea's lack of a succession plan.
"The last thing the North Koreans want to hear is outsiders speculating on their family and political transition," Walsh said. "It's fair to ask these questions [about Kim's health]…but it's very important that the U.S. government and other parties have a steady, predictable, finessed policy here that doesn't rattle or miscommunicate its intentions."
Experts remain divided on the likelihood of various governing scenarios, which range from the collective leadership of generals and top officials in the National Defense Commission to the ascension of Kim's 27-year-old son Kim Jong Chul. He was appointed to a high position within the Korean Workers' Party last year, the same post that his father held in the past.
But at this point it is unclear what the international community could expect from North Korea without Kim Jong Il at its helm.
Assuming he is still alive and in fair health, Alexander Mansourov, an associate at the Washington, D.C. -based National Committee on North Korea, suggested Kim may make a public appearance in North Korea in the coming weeks.
"If Kim Jong Il is in good shape and for whatever reason decided not to show up at this parade, then I'm sure it would be in his interest to let the world know he's still in control and he's still alive. Within weeks, we would probably hear about his meetings or his travels around the country," he said.
Columbia's Samuel Kim agreed. "If there is no credence to this rumor, something should come out to disprove it."
Toned Down North Korean Celebration
North Korea observers are also surprised that the 60th anniversary festivities were significantly less large-scale than previous anniversary parades. Joongang Daily newspaper quoted a South Korean military source saying that the actual preparations seen via satellite had been quite large in scale, but Tuesday's parade was unexpectedly ramped down.
"The North Koreans have an incentive to demonstrate or make a statement that they're militarily prepared to counter American aggression. In my view, they had every reason to show their military might on a very large and impressive scale but that just wasn't the case. In that sense, it was somewhat surprising," said ABC News consultant Han Park, a professor at the University of Georgia.
Still, Park was not entirely convinced by the rumors.
"North Korea is known for misleading world opinion and managing uncertainties about their intentions or whatever the outside world likes to know," Park pointed out.
"It's a very psychological state and this could be a spectacle move, possibly designed for another strategic end."
ABC News' Kirit Radia and Jonathan Karl contributed to this report.