The decision on who will become North Korea's next leader may not be set yet despite reports that Kim Jong Il has tapped his youngest son to succeed him, South Korea's defense chief said Tuesday.
Who will take over as ruler of nuclear-armed North Korea after Kim has been the focus of intense speculation since the 67-year-old reportedly suffered a stroke last August.
South Korea's spy agency told lawmakers that Pyongyang notified its diplomatic missions and government agencies overseas that 26-year-old Kim Jong Un, the youngest of Kim's three sons, will inherit the leadership of the communist nation.
But Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee told the National Assembly that current intelligence suggests that a final decision has not been made. He did not elaborate on the intelligence.
His comments added to the murky succession drama in the reclusive nation. The conflicting assessment comes amid tensions over the North's May 25 nuclear test and signs the regime is preparing to test-fire short- or medium-range missiles, or even a long-range missile, in violation of the U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Pyongyang has issued a no-sail zone through July 10 in waters off its east coast for "military drills."
Kim has controlled the impoverished nation of 24 million with absolute authority since his father's death in 1994. Regional powers fear instability and a power struggle if he dies without naming a successor. North Korea has denied Kim was ever ill, but he appeared gaunt in an April appearance at parliament.
Lee told lawmakers that South Korea's military was keeping a close watch on his health amid possible signs his condition has worsened.
On Monday, the Chosun Ilbo said a photo of Kim aired on North Korean state TV in mid-June appeared to be a doctored version of one published in April. Unidentified intelligence officials said there was a "a high possibility" the April image was recycled, sparking renewed concerns about his health, the report said.
Meanwhile, U.S. envoy Phil Goldberg was to leave soon for Beijing to discuss implementing the Security Council resolution imposed on the North for the May nuclear test, the State Department said.
The new resolution seeks to clamp down on North Korea's trading of banned arms and weapons-related material by requiring U.N. member states to request inspections of ships suspected of carrying prohibited cargo.
A U.S. destroyer was trailing a North Korean ship suspected of carrying banned weapons on board, possibly bound for Myanmar, U.S. and South Korean officials said.
Myanmar's authorities have told the North Korean ambassador they won't allow Kang Nam 1 to dock if it is carrying weapons or other banned materials, a Radio Free Asia report said.
Myanmar authorities also told the ambassador last week they would search the ship if its enters its waters, the RFA reported Monday from Washington, citing an unidentified senior diplomat from the Southeast Asian nation.