Reading tea leaves on North Korea no easy task

The cause of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's death, a heart attack, did not surprise Western intelligence agencies, but the timing did.

Kim Jong-il, 69, had a stroke in 2008, high blood pressure, diabetes, and enjoyed cognac and smoking cigars, so when he suffered a heart attack, it did not come as a shock to Korea experts.

"We knew he had an increased risk of a coronary event for some time now, but clearly no one can know exactly when something like this will happen," a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.

In the difficult task of deciphering one of the most closed societies on the planet, it is unclear how long it would have taken for word to leak out if North Korea had not itself announced the death of its leader on Sunday.

A senior European official said the German government had some of the best inside intelligence on Kim Jong-il's health problems and the machinations inside North Korea's ruling clique because both before and after the fall of East Germany's Communist regime, Kim Jong-il and his family had been regular patients of the medical staff at Charite University medical center in former East Berlin.

Medical teams from the Berlin hospital rotated in and out of North Korea to minister to the leader and other members of the North Korean elite, the European official said.

Despite that, Kim Jong-il's death took officials by surprise. Just a couple of weeks ago, the North Korean leader's health was actually thought to be better, the official said. He was in "quite good shape" and he was going to travel by train to a meeting in Russia.

Western spy agencies use satellites, electronic eavesdropping, and intelligence from Asian allies with greater access to try and deduce what is going on inside the hermetic country.

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