SEOUL, South Korea – The first photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il released in two months show him in a setting very similar to photographs from August.
And the verdant background looks more like summer than autumn, adding to uncertainty about Kim’s health after reports he underwent brain surgery.
North Korea released the undated still photos and video frame grabs Saturday accompanying a report by North Korean television that Kim visited a military unit. They were the first photos of Kim published since Aug. 14; and in both sets of pictures he wears his trademark dark sunglasses and a khaki jumpsuit.
“They didn’t appear to have been taken recently,” Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said Monday of the pictures carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency. “To me, it looked like they were taken in June or July.”
The 66-year-old communist leader disappeared from public view in mid-August and failed to make appearances on two national holidays – leading to speculation he was seriously ill. American and South Korean officials said he suffered a stroke and had brain surgery; North Korea has denied he is ailing.
One of the photos released Saturday shows Kim surrounded by uniformed soldiers against a backdrop that appears virtually identical to the photos from August – sand-colored buildings with window frames painted in turquoise. The report said he visited female soldiers attached to a unit identified by the number 821. It did not say when or where the inspection took place
He was also shown inspecting female troops in the Aug. 14 photos. The number of the military unit identified by KCNA at the time was 1319.
South Korea’s Hankook Ilbo daily, which noted similarities between the two sets of photos, said unit 821 was in Gangwon province and that the unit shown in the pictures published in August was not far away.
In the weekend photos, the grass and trees in the background appear far too green for autumn on the Korean peninsula, casting doubt that they were taken recently. Foliage in South Korea has begun showing a tinge of fall, with yellowing leaves mixed with green. Autumn arrives even earlier in North Korea.
For North Korea watchers, the photos released over the weekend raise more questions about Kim’s health – as well as the motive and timing of the publication. The images came out before the United States removed North Korea from its list of states that sponsor terrorism, tempering rising tensions over the North’s nuclear development.
Kim disappeared from view at the same time his country stopped dismantling its nuclear program under an international disarmament accord. The North was angered by the U.S. refusal to remove it from the terror sponsors list, long a demand of the communist regime.
The North Korean leader has long been believed to suffer from diabetes and heart disease. The latest images released showed no sign Kim was ill or had brain surgery.