SEOUL, South Korea – North Korean officials have removed portraits of leader Kim Jong Il (search) from some public buildings, and North Korea's state-run media have reportedly dropped his honorific title "Dear Leader." The changes are dramatic in a reclusive nation that has clung to totalitarian rule for more than half a century.
Analysts speculated on Thursday that Kim may have ordered the measures himself to downplay his state-sponsored personality cult, and the changes don't necessarily reflect an overhaul of the leadership.
Tokyo-based Radiopress, which monitors North Korean media, said the communist regime had toned down the titles it bestows on Kim, who is locked in a dispute with the United States and its allies over Pyongyang's (search) development of nuclear weapons.
Radiopress said the North's Korean Central News Agency and the Korean Central Broadcast referred to Kim not as "Dear Leader," but as "general secretary of the Worker's Party of Korea," or "chairman of the DPRK National Defense Commission and supreme commander of the Korean People's Army."
Some experts believe Kim is downplaying the official adulation in order to remove himself as a target for public discontent in his impoverished country. Kim has also made erratic efforts to modernize North Korea's antiquated economy, and the changes could be part of a similar, if extremely limited, campaign in the political arena.
Foreign diplomats reported the removal of portraits of Kim this week, an unusual development because the dictator is the focus of an all-encompassing cult of personality that he inherited from his father and late national founder, Kim Il Sung (search).
"We believe the change was made at his will to soften his image as a leader of a personality cult, although it is hard to determine what his real intentions are," said Radiopress editor Shinya Kato. "But we do not believe it was a sign of coup or related to his loss of power."
North Korea is one of the most tightly controlled countries in the world, and defectors who have fled hunger and oppression there have spoken of systematic human rights abuses. Still, Kim Jong Il has made periodic efforts to reach out to other countries, holding a 2000 summit with South Korea, visiting China and Russia and taking small steps toward reform of his devastated economy.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a South Korean government official told the South's Yonhap news agency that there were no "unusual signs at all" in North Korea's power structure.
The official noted that while portraits of Kim Jong Il have been taken down, North Korean television is still showing scenes of public places in which portraits of the leader are hanging. He also noted that North Korean media had retained some of Kim's titles, an indication that he likely remained in power.