TOKYO (AFP) — Japan's prime minister said Tuesday that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il is likely in hospital but able to make decisions, fuelling concerns over the reclusive dictator's health after a reported stroke.
Citing intelligence reports, Prime Minister Taro Aso told a parliamentary committee on foreign policy that Japan has "information that he is probably in hospital."
"Anyway, his condition isn't good. But we don't think that he's in a state where he's incapable of making any decisions at all," Aso said.
"Our understanding is that if that were the case, we would be seeing different developments," he said without elaborating.
The state of Kim's health -- and the question over who would succeed him -- has been a topic of intense speculation since he failed to appear at a key anniversary parade in early September.
US and South Korean officials say the 66-year-old recluse is believed to have suffered a stroke.
Japan's Fuji Television on Monday showed footage of a French brain surgeon who it said was personally recruited by Kim's eldest son, Kim Jong-Nam, to treat him in Pyongyang.
In Seoul, South Korea's intelligence chief confirmed that Kim Jong-Nam travelled to Paris but said his father seemed to be recovering.
"Although not completely fit, he appears well enough to perform his daily duties," National Intelligence Service director Kim Sung-Ho was quoted by a legislator as telling a closed-door parliamentary session.
Aso declined to say which country provided intelligence, saying: "In this era, we get information from many sectors."
Aso, a critic of North Korea, has a reputation for outspoken and impolitic remarks.
The speculation on Kim's health comes as North Korea resumes cooperation in a six-nation deal on ending its nuclear drive after the United States met the communist state's demands to delist it as a state sponsor of terrorism.
A Japanese academic who recently visited Pyongyang said he also believed Kim was sick but able to make decisions.
Haruki Wada, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, said the Pyongyang public appeared to be calm despite the international rumours about Kim's health.
"I firmly believe Chairman Kim Jong-Il is sick. However, seeing how he was able to lead and give instructions in the negotiations with the United States, I came to conclude his health is still okay," Wada told a news conference.
"Of course, the regime is hiding information from the local public. But everyone (in Pyongyang) knows that Mr. Kim Jong-Il did not come to the parade on September 9," Wada said at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan.
"So people have a sense that something is happening. But it did not appear in the city that people are seriously worried," he said.
Wada and a University of Tokyo associate professor, Tadashi Kimiya, visited Pyongyang from October 18 through 22 with a private group promoting the normalisation of relations between Japan and North Korea.
Wada, who did not directly ask North Korean officials about Kim's health, said the military's National Defence Commission would take charge should Kim become unable to lead the nation.
"If Kim Jong-Il died, I am sure the commission will succeed in responsibility. The regime will not collapse," Wada said.
He said it was difficult to imagine Kim's sons succeeding him as they have not taken any positions within the ruling Workers' Party or the military, and Kim has not made visible efforts to promote them.
Kim replaced his father Kim Il-Sung after his death in 1994, creating the world's first communist dynasty.
North Korea threatened Tuesday to turn South Korea into "debris" in an unusually strong statement that demanded Seoul halt what the communist state called its policy of confrontation.
It was issued amid worsening relations between the Koreas, with the North angry about anti-Pyongyang leaflets floated across the border by activists and defector groups based in the South.
"The puppet authorities (Seoul) had better bear in mind that the advanced pre-emptive strike of our own style will reduce everything... to debris, not just setting them on fire," the North's military said.
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