REPORTING FROM SEOUL –- In life -– and now even in death -– Kim Jong Il's whereabouts have always been a guessing game.
Is he here, or over there? No! Wait, there he is! Poof!
Inside his Hermit Kingdom, press pictures released of Kim were always undated. Live-television images of the "Dear Leader" were pretty much verboten.
Now, South Korean intelligence officials are even casting doubt on Pyongyang's official story line that the 69-year-old Kim died of a heart attack while working aboard a moving train Saturday morning.
South Korea's top spy, Won Sei-hoon, told lawmakers in Seoul that a review of satellite photographs revealed that Kim's train was actually stationary at a Pyongyang station at the time of the ruler's death, as announced by the North, according to media reports.
"There were no signs the train ever moved," South Korean media quoted Won as telling officials.
South Korea's Defense Ministry on Wednesday seconded Won's reported comments, questioning the circumstances of the dictator's death.
Due to previous assassination attempts, Kim always traveled aboard a bulletproof train that was more like an armored Queen Mary on wheels.
North Korea watchers speculate that the time and place of Kim's death may somehow be sensitive to North Korean officials as they oversee the transition of power to the late strongman's handpicked successor, his youngest son, Kim Jong Un.
South Korean media reported rumors circulating among national lawmakers that Kim Jong Il actually died in his bed at his Pyongyang residence.
But the image of a sickly, weakened and prone "Dear Leader" taking his last breaths may not have sounded sufficiently patriotic to suit Pyongyang's propaganda machine.
So maybe, just maybe, the North Koreans pulled a page from Hollywood and ... did a rewrite! The image of an indefatigable Kim dying while on a "field guidance tour" better fits the legacy of a dictator who didn't know quit.
(Think the drama of a young John F. Kennedy cut down in the infancy of his presidency, or a charismatic Theodore Roosevelt-type who keels over at his desk.)
The North's Korean Central News Agency is perpetrating the dictator-as-hero story, reporting that the North Korean people, "young and old, men and women, are calling Kim Jong Il, who gave tireless field guidance, totally dedicated day and night to the happiness of the people."
But there's even more intrigue to Kim's possible disappearing act.
Many here say South Korean -– and even U.S. -– intelligence officials are trying to cover up for a major gaffe: getting caught with their spy pants down and not knowing earlier about the death of one of the world’s most detested and dangerous figures.
South Korean media have reported that Seoul officials learned about Kim's death on Monday along with the rest of the world -– when it was broadcast on television. That's two days after the supposed event.
What's more, during Monday's noon hour, about the time the news hit here, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was reportedly attending a surprise birthday party thrown by aides at the Blue House (South Korea’s version of the White House).
Lee was celebrating a triple-whammy: his 71st birthday, 41st wedding anniversary and the fourth anniversary of his winning the presidency. Some aides were reportedly wearing pointed party hats when Lee arrived at the gathering of 200 celebrants, apparently just before the news of the North Korean dictator's death broke.
Wheeeeee! There’s the birthday boy!
Somewhere, the ever-secretive Kim Jong Il may be having the last laugh.
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: North Korean leader Kim Jong Il smiles while visiting a shopping center in Vladivostok, Russia. Credit: AFP