SEOUL, South Korea — In life — and even in death — Kim Jong Il’s whereabouts were always a guessing game.
Inside his Hermit Kingdom, press pictures released of Kim were always undated. Live television images of the “Dear Leader” were pretty much verboten.
Now, South Korean intelligence officials are even casting doubt on Pyongyang’s official story line that Kim died of a heart attack while working aboard a moving train Saturday morning.
South Korea’s top spy, Won Sei-hoon, told lawmakers in Seoul a review of satellite photographs revealed that Kim’s train was stationary at a Pyongyang station at the time North Korean officials said he died, according to media reports.
“There were no signs the train ever moved,” South Korean media quoted Won as telling officials.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry on Wednesday agreed, questioning the circumstances of the dictator’s death.
North Korea watchers speculate that the time and place of Kim’s death may be sensitive to North Korean officials as they oversee the transition of power to the late strongman’s handpicked successor: his youngest son, Kim Jong Un.
South Korean media reported rumors circulating among national lawmakers that Kim Jong Il actually died in his bed at his Pyongyang residence.
Under this scenario, the image of a sickly, weakened and prone “Dear Leader” taking his last breaths may not have sounded sufficiently patriotic to suit Pyongyang’s propaganda machine. The image of an indefatigable Kim dying while on a “field guidance tour” better fit the legacy of a dictator who didn’t know how to quit.
The North’s Korean Central News Agency is perpetrating the dictator-as-hero story, reporting that the North Korean people, “young and old, men and women, are calling Kim Jong Il, who gave tireless field guidance, totally dedicated day and night to the happiness of the people.”
But there’s even more intrigue to Kim’s final act.
Many observers here say South Korean — and even U.S. — intelligence officials are trying to cover up for a major gaffe: not finding out about the death of one of the world’s notorious leaders until two days after the fact.
South Korean media have reported that Seoul officials learned about Kim’s death Monday along with the rest of the world — when it was broadcast on North Korean state television.
What’s more, about the time the news hit here, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was reportedly attending a surprise birthday party thrown by aides at the Blue House, South Korea’s version of the White House.
Lee was celebrating a triple-whammy: his 71st birthday, 41st wedding anniversary and the fourth anniversary of his winning the presidency. Some aides were reportedly wearing pointed party hats when
Lee arrived at the gathering of 200 celebrants, apparently
just before the news of the North Korean dictator’s death broke.
Somewhere, the ever-secretive Kim Jong Il may be having the last laugh.