North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has only three years to live based on all medical information compiled so far, Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell told South Korean officials. Campbell made the comments in a closed-door meeting during his trip to South Korea last month, sources said.
Campbell invited three North Korean defectors, Liberty Forward Party lawmaker Park Sun-young, Democratic Party leader Jang Sang and Daily NK publisher Han Ki-hong to the U.S. embassy last month to discuss the political situation in North Korea and the prospects of dynastic succession there. U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens was also present.
Campbell asked participants how long they thought the North Korean leader has to live. One forecast five years, while another predicted less than that. Campbell added his own prediction of less than five years, saying that based on all medical information available it may be three years.
Experts speculate that these forecasts are behind Washington's proposal to hold more joint military exercises with South Korea to prepare for an emergency in North Korea. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff made the proposal in a meeting with South Korean brass in October of last year, while Walter Sharp, commander of U.S. Forces in South Korea, reportedly made the same proposal early this year.
The Combined Forces Command, comprised of U.S. and South Korean military officials, have prepared an operational plan for an emergency in North Korea, including Kim's sudden death. No specific exercises have yet been held, but a weapons-of-mass-destruction crack team is taking part in the current "Key Resolve" joint military exercise.
A senior South Korean government official said North Korea is "rushing to hand over all authority" to Kim's son and heir apparent Kim Jong-un within the next three years.
Photographs of the leader taken over the past year since his stroke show the color of his hands has darkened, while his fingernails are unusually white, suggesting that he may be suffering from kidney problems.
Campbell said the handover of power would be "totally different" than the time when Kim Jong-il took over from his father. Kim spent a decade under his father's wing learning the ropes, while Jong-un, who is only 26, has had no such training.
One of the participants at the meeting said U.S. agents gathered information about Jong-un's personality and intellectual capacity by interviewing teachers at the Swiss international school he had attended. Participants predicted a smooth transfer of power from father to son, saying major uncertainties await the North anywhere between two to five years after the handover.
A participant said North Korea could be forced to change if the pent-up frustrations of the public are tapped into. Campbell is said to have summed up the meeting by concluding that the Kim Jong-il regime would not last long and that the rapid transfer of power to the young Jong-un poses major concerns.