Return to

September 25, 2008
Notes from the Pentagon

Kim making decisions
A senior U.S. official says North Korean leader Kim Jong-il suffered some kind of incapacitating illness but the totalitarian leader remains in the decision-making chain.

The official, who is knowledgeable on events in North Korea, said reports were circulating weeks before Mr. Kim failed to appear at a 60th-anniversary celebration on Sept. 9, although his absence at the event was the major indicator that North Korea's leadership was not functioning normally. "That's an event he had to be at," the official said.

Nevertheless, the illness is not seriously affecting Mr. Kim's rule over North Korea, the official said. "This is a man who is not incapacitated; this is a man who is still very much aware of what's going on. And the sense you have is either he's in-putting, or he's made enough policy decisions prior to his illness so that everything is just moving forward."

The official said all indications are that the illness has not affected any decisions coming out of Pyongyang, including how to deal with the six-nation nuclear talks.

Mr. Kim is said to have suffered a stroke and has not been seen in public since mid-August. Several foreign doctors were dispatched to Pyongyang and are believed to be treating him.

"We see North Korea continuing since the middle of August, when Kim Jong-il disappeared from the scene," the official said. "There's a medical issue that's affecting him. But there has not been any manifestation of any medical issue affecting him that seemingly has impinged on their ability to make decisions on issues of critical importance to North Korea's well-being."

Additionally, there are no unusual military activities in North Korea, such as heightened alert status, nor have any unusual political activities by the ruling Korean Workers' Party been detected, the official said.

The official said Kim Jong-il has three sons who are possible successors. The oldest son, Kim Jong-nam, 37, spends most of his time outside the country, mainly in China. Two younger sons, Kim Jong-chul, 27, and Kim Jong-woon, 24, are working for the Korean Workers' Party.

"But there are no indications that any of the sons have been groomed to replace his father," the official said. "The sons are there, and they've got to be part of an equation [on succession] down the road, although we're not looking at succession now because there is no sense that Kim is terminally ill and will not be at the helm to make decisions."

Mr. Kim's power centers include the National Defense Commission, made up of senior generals, and the Korean Workers' Party. One powerful official in the ruling circle is Kim Ok, a woman who serves as his personal secretary and whom the official described as a very influential confidante." Another key official close to Mr. Kim is brother-in-law Chang Sung-taek, who is an important and experienced adviser.

"We know the key players who would be working with Kim during this period of illness," the official said, adding that there are no signs at this point of any emergencies. The official said there are "gaps" in what is known about North Korea, considered one of the most closed societies on earth.

Pakistan bombing
A U.S. military officer said the truck-bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, is being viewed as a major failure of local security to deal with terrorist threats.

The bombing Saturday evening took place as many foreign visitors were in the hotel for Ramadan meals. A massive truck bomb detonated, killing up to 80 people, including possibly two Western intelligence officers.

Three people linked to a Pakistani Islamist group with ties to al Qaeda were arrested in Gujranwala, a city in central Punjab province, after electronic surveillance led security authorities to them hours after the Marriott blast, Reuters reported from Pakistan, quoting an intelligence officer.

The six-story hotel was a frequent meeting place in the city and was a part-time residence for some U.S. Embassy personnel. Two Marine security guards were killed in the blast.

The military officer said the hotel's security was inadequate because the distance from the highway was insufficient. "That's not enough to prevent a Khobar Towers or Oklahoma City bombing," the officer said. "That should have been a no-go for any regular hanging out with groups of Americans in a country like Pakistan or even staying overnight."

The blast crater was 20 feet by 30 feet, indicating that the amount of explosives used in the truck bomb probably was more than the initial estimate of 1,000 pounds of explosives, the officer said. "Very poor anti-terrorism/force protection consideration," he said.

China space threat
China is developing space weapons that could be used against the U.S. military in a future conflict, according to a specialist on the issue.

"China could pose a major threat to United States satellites if they decide to deploy the [anti-satellite weapons] which they tested early last year, although coordinating such an attack would not be easy," said Bruce W. MacDonald, senior director of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States.

"China's got other offensive counterspace programs under way in various stages of development - lasers, microwaves, cyber and so forth," Mr. MacDonald told a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations on Sept. 18, coinciding with the release of a council report on the subject.

China in January 2007 conducted a test of an anti-satellite missile that shot down a Chinese weather satellite. In February, the Pentagon used a modified missile-defense interceptor to shoot down a U.S. satellite that was in danger of falling to earth with toxic fuel.

"Both countries have strong military incentives to deploy offensive counterspace capability," Mr. MacDonald said, noting that space is no longer a sanctuary from military conflict.

The U.S. military is highly dependent on space for its conventional military superiority. "This is a dependence that's ripe for the PLA, the People's Liberation Army, of China to exploit," Mr. MacDonald said. "And the PLA certainly knows it, especially in a Taiwan context where if such forces were to be used that it might well be in that context."

If China could knock out key U.S. satellites, "we would suffer a huge potential degradation in our conventional force capability," he said.

China's military, through writings, has made clear that "the PLA envisions conflict or the possibility of conflict in space, and they're preparing for it," Mr. MacDonald said.

Mr. MacDonald said he favors deterring China's use of space weapons through ground-based jammers that produce reversible damage. "I believe it's in the interest of both the U.S. and China not to conduct broad-scale counterspace warfare, even in conflict," he said.

  • Bill Gertz covers national security affairs. He can be reached at 202/636-3274, or at

  • Inside the Ring Archives
    1999 Columns
    2000 Columns
    2001 Columns

    2002 Columns
    2003 Columns
    2004 Columns
    2005 Columns
    2006 Columns
    2007 Columns
    2008 Columns
    Return to