SEOUL, South Korea – The 66-year-old man in the photos appeared the picture of health, full of vigor despite reports he underwent brain surgery less than two months ago.
He was surrounded by serious, crisply uniformed soldiers and in the background there was plenty of verdant greenery, more reminiscent of summer than mid-autumn in a temperate clime.
To seasoned North Korea watchers, the country's weekend release of photos of leader Kim Jong Il for the first time since the middle of August are raising a host of questions about his health — as well as the motive and timing behind their publication.
The images came less than 24 hours before the United States on Saturday removed North Korea from Washington's terrorism blacklist, dousing rising tensions over North Korea's nuclear development.
Kim had disappeared from public view in mid-August, just when Pyongyang stopped dismantling its nuclear program in anger with the United States over its refusal to delist the North, a long coveted demand of the country's communist regime.
"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."
Sporting his trademark dark shades and khaki jumpsuit, Kim was shown inspecting a military unit. He viewed troops in training, clapping and talking to them while looking around their barracks dotted with red-and-white slogans urging loyalty to him.
They were the first photos of the "Dear Leader," as he is known in North Korea, available since Aug. 14.
That is the date around which Kim — believed to have long had diabetes and heart disease — is thought to have suffered a stroke and then underwent brain surgery, according to South Korean and U.S. officials. North Korea has denied Kim is ill.
But the latest images — though undated — gave no indication Kim had been ill, let alone offered any sign of the alleged operation.
His bouffant hair remained as puffy as before, and there was no change in his pot belly. He also appeared in the images to have no problem walking and using both his arms.
Brain surgery usually involves shaving off of at least some hair and results in some body paralysis in many cases.
"Looking at his hands, arms and facial appearances in the still pictures, he doesn't appear to have had any problems," said Myoung C. Lee, a neurologist at Seoul's Asan Medical Center. "It's doubtful if they were taken recently, but it's all guesswork."
But the oddest thing about the photos to some were the verdant grass and trees visible in the background: They were too green to believe the pictures were taken recently, considering it's autumn on the Korean peninsula.
Foliage in South Korea has begun showing the tinge of fall, with yellowing leaves mixed with those still green. North Korea is latitudinally farther north than South Korea and autumn arrives faster.
Newspapers in Seoul had similar observations.
"Grass and trees in the photos show the typical sight of a summer landscape, though it is time that autumn leaves are visible in North Korea," the daily Kukmin Ilbo said Monday.
The paper also said South Korean intelligence had seen no unusual movements where the military unit Kim reportedly visited is located, which would have been expected had he visited.
South Korean officials declined to comment on their analysis of the photos.
"We're keeping a close watch on Chairman Kim Jong Il's activity," said Kim Ho-nyeon, spokesman for the Unification Ministry in charge of monitoring the North, refusing to discuss details. The North's leader rules the totalitarian nation in his capacity as chairman of the country's all-powerful National Defense Commission.
Hong Hyun-ik, a North Korea analyst at the security think tank Sejong Institute, said he also believes the latest pictures must have been taken much earlier, because they were "too green" in the background and Kim appeared "too healthy."
Still, the North's release of the pictures should not be seen as meaning Kim's health has deteriorated, he said.
"Kim Jong Il cannot appear in public unless he is in perfect shape," the analyst said. "I think North Korea released the pictures to show its people that their supreme leader is up and going, as the regime prepares to use its removal from the U.S. terrorism list as propaganda for the leader."
Kim, the Dongguk University professor, said the images appeared to be intended not only for the North Korean people, but for U.S. audiences as well.
"Would the United States have removed North Korea from the terrorism list if Kim Jong Il's health is serious?" he asked rhetorically. "I think the North must have felt the need to put an end to speculation about his health ahead of its removal from the terror list."
Despite the release of the pictures, the analyst said Kim is on the road to recovery and is likely to make an appearance in the near future in settings that would leave no question about his health, such as meetings with foreign diplomats.