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2008/11/06 11:26 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 28 (November 6, 2008)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

Kim Jong-il Photos Released in Effort to Quell Rumors over Poor Health

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Amid persistent speculation over the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the North's state-run media released a series of photos showing Kim attending public events, meant to indicate that he is still in control of the socialist country.

   The photos, released on Nov. 2, show Kim, 66, watching a soccer match and are an apparent bid by the regime to dispel rampant speculation over the condition of its leader's health. They are believed to have been taken in late October and show Kim smiling with what appears to be a weak left arm, a possible sign of paralysis.

   Two days later, on Nov. 4, state media issued a report that Kim had inspected two military units, releasing pictures of his visits hours later. The visits mark Kim's second public appearance in three days. According to the reports, Kim observed drills and encouraged soldiers, though the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) did not provide information on the locations of the unit or when the visits were made.

   Kim is believed to have suffered a stroke in August and has been out of public view since Aug. 14, when he reportedly inspected a military unit in North Korea.

   North Korea watchers speculate that North Koreans may have heard reports coming from outside media sources that Kim had in fact suffered a serious health setback. The North's media responded by asserting that Kim remained in full control of the state.

   South Korean officials have said that while Kim most likely suffered a stroke and is recovering from brain surgery, he would still be able to manage state affairs.

   According to the KCNA, Kim inspected military unit 2200 and instructed the soldiers to "strengthen and develop the North Korean military with invincible revolutionary force." In another visit to Unit 534, Kim ordered the soldiers to "consolidate their unbeatable military force by increasing political training in combat."

   During his visit, Kim and several senior military leaders took photos along with soldiers of the unit. Kim had previously visited a food processing plant, farms and other facilities attached to Unit 534 in years past.

   North Korea customarily releases photos of Kim's public appearances days or sometimes hours after the initial reports of his appearances. The latest photos show Kim posing with the group of soldiers, standing in the center of the front row with both hands straight down.

   Pictures released on Nov. 2, however, raised speculation within South Korean media that Kim may indeed be suffering from paralysis due to the frail appearance of his left hand.

   In early October, North Korean media released a photo of Kim inspecting a female soldiers' unit. The photos, meant to quell rumors that Kim was in bad health, actually served to inflame such speculation when the foliage in the background of the image revealed that the photos were not current. Experts in the South said the pictures were in fact taken several months earlier, well before Kim's alleged illness.

   The Nov. 2 photos of Kim at the football match show him smiling in what appears to be the VIP box of a football stadium, though where and when the photos were taken was not mentioned. The release came hours after the KCNA reported that Kim watched a game between two army teams, Mangyongbong and Jebi, together with army soldiers.

   The (North) Korean Central TV Broadcasting Station aired a total of 14 photos of Kim watching the match and giving instructions to officials accompanying him. The photos showed Kim wearing dark sunglasses and a thick, brown autumn jacket. His head shows no sign of scarring, despite intelligence reports that Kim underwent brain surgery in mid-August, though one photo showed him sitting on a sofa with a feeble left hand resting on his knee, suggesting that he may in fact have suffered a stroke.

   Autumn leaves on the trees around the stadium confirm the photos were taken recently.

   The KCNA report said the match was held "in connection with the close of the 11th People's Sports Contest," a national athletic meet that runs for nearly a month until Oct. 31.

   The October photos were the second such released by the KCNA, which previously distributed photos of Kim inspecting a women's military unit in a frontline area on Oct. 11.

   Medical specialists, meanwhile, have suggested Kim may still be suffering from partial paralysis after his stroke in August, just prior to his last public appearance on Aug. 14, when he reportedly inspected a military unit in North Korea. His conspicuous absence from recent state events, including a parade marking the 60th anniversary of the nation's founding, fanned speculation about his health.

   The timing of Kim's disappearance coincided with the restarting of North Korea's disabled nuclear facilities in August, in protest over Washington's failure to delist Pyongyang as a state sponsor of terrorism. The North's hardline policy triggered speculation that the military was using Kim's health failure to derail ongoing denuclearization talks.

   North Korea last month resumed disabling its nuclear facilities as Washington lifted it from a U.S. terrorism blacklist in return for Pyongyang's agreement to allow access to its nuclear facilities by international monitors.

   Kim Sung-ho, head of South Korea's National Intelligence Service, said late last month the North Korean leader has yet to fully recover, but is now well enough to perform his daily duties.

   The North Korean leader's health has been the subject of keen attention since he has not publicly nominated any successor, and is widely believed to suffer from diabetes and heart disease. He officially took power after his father, state founder Kim Il-sung, died of a heart attack in 1994.

   North Korea experts say Pyongyang's release of the latest photos is aimed at preventing internal tension that may arise from the leader's absence, as well as showing the outside world that Kim is well enough to lead in diplomacy with the United States and other foreign countries.

   "Kim Jong-il's illness could prompt the U.S. to ignore North Korea as it awaits the North's collapse," said Kim Seong-bae, an expert at Seoul's Institute for National Security Strategy. Pyongyang is sending a signal through these photos that it is ready for aggressive negotiations with the next U.S. government, he said.

   According to the Nov. 2 KCNA report, Kim congratulated members of the "Mangyongbong" team on their 3-1 victory in the match.

   "(Kim) said that the servicepersons of the Korean People's Army (KPA), standard-bearers and members of the shock brigade in implementing the Songun (military-first) policies, are a model in sporting activities," the report said.

   Kim also told the athletes that "to develop sports is of very weighty importance not only in successfully pushing forward the revolutionary struggle and construction to augment the might of the country, but in boosting friendly relations with various countries of the world," the report added.

   Kim was accompanied by ranking military and communist party officials including Hyun Chol-hae, Ri Myong-su and Kim Myong-guk, all army generals, and Jang Song-thaek, director of the party's administration department, according to the KCNA report.