SEOUL, South Korea – Kim Jong Il's childhood in a secret guerrilla camp and early years before becoming leader of communist North Korea are the focus of a multipart film in the works in Pyongyang, state media said Thursday — widely seen as another sign the ailing 67-year-old is paving the way for a successor.
The movie — chronicling the authoritarian leader's "undying feats" and his "extraordinary wisdom and distinguished leadership art, political caliber and noble personality," according to state media — is reminiscent of a 20-part film made the year before his late father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, died of heart failure at age 82.
The retrospective would be a rare acknowledgment that Kim Jong Il, believed to have suffered a stroke nearly a year ago and rumored to have chronic diabetes and heart disease, is getting on in years. Discussing the health of a man who is the focus of an intense personality cult is taboo in North Korea, and officials routinely deny reports about his ailments.
But recent images of a haggard, gaunt-looking Kim, his hair noticeably thinning, have touched off renewed speculation about his health. South Korean broadcaster YTN recently reported a new malady last week: pancreatic cancer, and said he had less than five years to live.
Kim's health is of broad interest because he rules the nation of 24 million, one of the world's most impoverished and closed off, with absolute authority. There are fears his death could trigger chaos or a power struggle if he does not name a successor.
For months, speculation has been mounting that a string of provocations from the North — including a rocket launch in April, a nuclear test in May and a series of missile tests — are designed to build up national pride as Kim prepares to name his youngest son, 26-year-old Jong Un, as heir.
However, the regime has made no announcement to the outside world about a new leader.
Analyst Koh Yu-hwan of Seoul's Dongguk University said the laudatory film celebrating Kim's achievements appears aimed at laying the groundwork for a succession announcement.
A biopic like one made to chronicle Kim Il Sung's life "could be used to demonstrate the inevitability of a son taking over so as to make North Korean people to accept the succession as a matter of tradition," he said.
"Kim Jong Il desperately feels the need to look back on his life and hand power over to his son" as his late father did in the early 1990s, said Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute security think tank outside Seoul.
In his later years, the elder Kim started penning a memoir and commissioned a movie to capture his life story on film, Cheong noted, all part of building up the mythology of the Kim dynasty.
A movie series seems apt for Kim Jong Il, a noted film buff.
Part 1 of "The Sun of Songun Shedding Its Rays All over the World" focuses on his early years and his development of the "songun," or "military first," policy that has defined his leadership, the official Korean Central News Agency said Thursday.
"Impressive scenes" contained in Part 1 show how Kim devised the military-heavy policy based on his experience during the Japanese colonial era, North Korea's early years following World War II, the Korean War of the 1950s and the postwar period — all events that helped shape "the perfect personality and qualification to be possessed by a leader," KCNA said.
It is the first time the North has produced such a film about Kim, though the regime has made a number of documentaries about his public activities, Seoul's Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo told reporters Thursday.
But she declined to comment on what the new film might signify about Kim's health. Images sent Tuesday via North Korean state media showed Kim touring a tile factory. He appears thin but no worse off than in other recent photographs.
Despite the questions about his health, Kim has kept up a brisk routine of offering "on-the-spot field guidance" at factories nationwide. He has made 82 such trips so far this year, compared with 57 visits during the same period last year, the Unification Ministry said.