A French neurosurgeon confirmed that Kim Jong Il had a debilitating stroke in 2008, and described secretly treating the reclusive dictator while the North Korean public and world remained unaware of his condition.
Dr Francois-Xavier Roux - speaking to The Associated Press -described Kim's concerns for his future, the challenge of working under constant surveillance, and Korean doctors' fears of making final decisions about how to save their supreme leader.
North Korean state media announced that Kim had died at age 69.
Roux, the chief of neurosurgery at Sainte Anne Hospital in Paris, said he was urgently flown to North Korea in August 2008 to examine Kim who was unconscious and in a bad way and in intensive care at Pyongyang's Red Cross Hospital, in the communist nation's capital.
Secrets around Kim’s health
The two-month trip and medical exam gave Roux unparalleled access for a Westerner to the North Korean regime and an intimate view of its enigmatic, weakened chief.
North Korean officials first contacted Roux by phone in 1993 after Kim suffered a "small head injury following a horse-riding accident," the doctor said, adding that he never understood why they had sought him out.
And then, three years ago, North Korea contacted Roux again after Kim suffered the stroke - never formally acknowledged by authorities. This time officials arranged for the doctor to come to Pyongyang with a few other French doctors.
"When they came to get me in 2008, I didn't know who I was leaving to go and see over there," said Roux. “They don't say - they're very secret.”
Kim was in a coma
Roux said he was brought immediately to a hospital, handed medical files of anonymous patients, and asked to give a diagnosis and treatment recommendation for each. Most were not in serious trouble, but one file worried him. He insisted on seeing the patient in person.
After a few hours of consultation, the local medical team consented. The patient, Roux said, was Kim Jong Il.
"When I arrived, he was in intensive care, in a coma, in a bad way," Roux said.
"My job was to try and save him from this critical state by talking with the other doctors, by giving medical advice, etc. He was in a life-threatening situation," Roux said.
Kim lost a little weight
Citing doctor-patient privilege and state secrecy, Roux declined to say how he had examined Kim, or indicate what treatment he had recommended.
He said that by the time he returned to France about 10 days later, Kim was conscious and speaking. Roux said he saw Kim again for follow-up visits organised at the authorities' behest.
Roux said that as Kim began to gain awareness of his condition, he became very concerned as any of us would have been after a serious stroke. Kim wanted to know if he would live normally again, if he would walk normally again, work normally. He was asking very logical questions.
He said Kim had lost a little weight, but suffered few lasting effects. However, the chance of future strokes increased over time.
Kim knew French wines well
Roux said the North Korean authorities appeared to have sought a foreign doctor because they needed someone who was not emotionally involved.
"My Korean colleagues were ... disturbed to be making decisions for their leader," he said, adding that while local doctors took part in Kim's care, final treatment decisions were left to him.
He described speaking a mix of French and English with the other doctors, and said that Kim appeared to be profoundly Francophile.
"He wanted to establish political ties with France. He was not hiding that," said Roux. "He also knew French cinema very well. I was pretty surprised. He knew French wines pretty well. We were talking about the differences between Bourgogne and Bordeaux, etc."
Roux said only close family knew Kim was sick, but the message didn't get passed to the public. The late leader's 20-something son Kim Jong Un was a regular visitor to his father's bedside, he said, but the heir apparent never spoke to him.
(Sapa, December 2011)