North Korea to make major announcement on Monday
North Korea will make an "important announcement" on Monday amid speculation over the health of its leader Kim Jong Il, a Japanese newspaper reported Sunday, according to Reuters.
The 66-year-old North Korean leader disappeared from public view in mid-August and failed to make appearances on two important national holidays, leading to speculation he was seriously ill. U.S. and South Korean officials said he suffered a stroke and had brain surgery, but North Korea has denied he is ailing.
Quoting unidentified sources at Japan's defense ministry, the Sankei daily said Tokyo had information that "there will be an important announcement on (Oct.) 20th."
The Sankei said there was speculation within the Japanese government that the North's announcement could be about Kim's death or a government change induced by a coup.
The Sankei report came a day after Japan's biggest-selling Yomiuri daily said North Korea had ordered its diplomats abroad to be on standby for an important announcement.
North Korea experts in South Korea downplayed the reports Sunday. Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea expert at the security think tank Sejong Institute, said it would be "nonsense" for the North to give several days' notice on the announcement of Kim's death.
"I think the Japanese media reports' authenticity is very low," Paik said, adding they appeared to be an attempt to "shake" the North by renewing speculation about Kim's health condition.
North Korea released photos earlier this month showing Kim inspecting a military unit and appearing healthy. However, it did not say when the pictures were taken. Some analysts said the photos appeared to have been taken earlier because plant foliage was wrong for the time of year.
North Korea will also ban foreigners from entering the country starting Monday, the Sankei said, without giving further details.
Japanese defense and foreign ministry officials could not be reached for comment Sunday.
In Seoul, Kim Ho-nyeon, chief spokesman at the South Korean Unification Ministry, said Sunday the ministry could not confirm the reports. Kim said the ministry had not detected any unusual signs in North Korea.
South Korea's National Intelligence Service said it was trying to verify the Japanese media reports. Calls to the South Korean Foreign Ministry went unanswered Sunday.
The Sankei also said the Chosen Soren, a pro-Pyongyang association of Koreans living in Japan, told its top officials to halt foreign and domestic trips. The Chosen Soren functions as North Korea's de facto embassy in Japan as Pyongyang and Tokyo have no diplomatic ties.
Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University, also cast doubt on the reports. "Various measures would be detected" if Kim was dead or the North was about to announce a shift in power, Yoo said.
In a dispatch from the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, the South's Yonhap news agency quoted an unnamed source in Beijing as saying some North Korean embassy officials who left on business trips have not returned, despite reports the North ordered its diplomats to be on standby for an "important announcement."
In Washington, spokesman Noel Clay said the U.S. State Department couldn't comment on what the announcement might be.
On Thursday, North Korea threatened to break off all relations with South Korea if its new conservative government continues what the North called a policy of reckless confrontation with the communist nation.