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Analysis: Ailing N.Korean Leadership

File photo of Yon Hyong Muk.

Seoul (UPI) Oct 24, 2005
The death of Yon Hyong Muk shows how vulnerable North Korea's ailing leadership is to illness and how difficult it is for the aged ruling elite to carry out reforms.

It also shows the need for change in the North's power structure, which is dominated by ailing "first-generation revolution" leaders who are in their 70s or 80s, officials and analysts in Seoul said.

Yon, vice chairman of the North's all-powerful National Defense Commission, chaired by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, died of an "incurable" disease on Saturday at the age of 73, according to the North's state media. The former prime minister had long been considered one of the closest confidants of Kim Jong Il who inherited his father, Kim Il Sung's, position following his 1994 death at 82.

The Czech-educated technocrat played a key role in building North Korea's defense industry-focused economy as a right hand-man of Kim Il-Sung who established a communist regime in the northern half of the Korean peninsula at the end of World War II.

Born in 1931, Yon served as prime minister from 1988 to 1992 and worked as the chief negotiator when he visited South Korea for high-level inter-Korean talks in the early 1990s when the two Koreas produced a set of cross-border rapprochement measures, including the 1992 North-South Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-aggression, Exchange and Cooperation that included on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

The South Korean government, in a recent report on the North Korean leadership, placed Yon as the third-most powerful politician after Kim Jong Il and Kim Yong Nam, who serves as ceremonial head of state as chairman of the presidium of the legislative Supreme People's Assembly.

North Korea described Yon's death as "a big loss" to the country and said a state funeral would be held.

Yon "remained intensely loyal to the party and devoted his all to the struggle for the victory of the revolutionary cause -- to the last moments of his life," said an obituary carried by the North's Korean Central News Agency. Yon's achievements for the party and the North Korean people will "remain forever," it said.

The North's media did not name the disease from which Yon died, but he reportedly had surgery in Russia last year for pancreatic cancer.

His last public appearance was the Oct. 10 military parade to mark the 60th founding anniversary of the Workers' Party. Yon accompanied Kim Jong Il at the meeting in Pyongyang with visiting South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young on June 17.

South Korea also expressed its condolences over the death of Yon, saying he "made a great contribution" to a series of landmark inter-Korean agreements.

"I humbly express my condolence upon receiving the report that Yon died of chronic disease," Unification Minister Chung said in the telegram on Monday.

"I hope (Yon's) efforts will continue to contribute to improving inter-Korean relations by one more step," said the South's point man on North Korea. It was the first time the South Korean government officially condoles the death of a North Korean government official.

Officials in Seoul said Yon's demise while in office reaffirmed the need for a generational shift in the North's leadership, which has mainly leaders in their 70s and 80s.

Among the top 20 officials who attended Communist Party anniversary functions earlier this month, 16 were in their 70s. Five were older than 80. Their average age was 75.7.

Many suffer ailments such as cancer and diabetes and have been treated overseas, according to South Korea's government sources.

Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, 77, the most powerful man in the military behind Kim Jong Il as the first vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, was treated for renal failure in China between 2001 and 2003. Jo used the 301 Hospital run by the Chinese People's Liberation Army, a medical institution exclusively used by Chinese leaders.

Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun, 76, is suffering from renal failure, and received treatment twice in China in 2001 and in Singapore in June 2004.

Kye Ung Tae, the 85-year-old party secretary, is suffering from dementia and visited China last year for medical treatment. Rim Dong Uk, a 75-year-old official in charge of inter-Korean relations has lung cancer.

Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il, 60, who led the North's delegation to the six-party talks to resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff, received treatment for heart disease in China last November.

Marshal Ri Ul Sol, 84, had heart disease and diabetes and received treatment in 1993 overseas. Culture Minister Choe Ik Kyu, 71, received treatment in Germany for heart problems in 1995.

Kim Jong Il, 63, who rules the country as top military official, is unlikely to carry out a massive generational shift because it may destabilize the country's ruling formula based on the personality cult for the leadership, analysts say.

"The North did not sack aged officials until their deaths only if they were loyal to the Kim family, and this is a main obstacle to the North's political changes," said Chun Hyun-Joon, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government think tank.

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