South Korean President Lee Myung-bak believes North Korea is running "normally" under leader Kim Jong Il despite reports the totalitarian leader suffered a stroke and had brain surgery.

Lee made the remark in an Oct. 18 interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro, his office said Wednesday, as questions linger over Kim's health despite Pyongyang's denials.

"I don't think there are any changes in North Korea because of Chairman Kim Jong Il's health," Lee said during the interview, referring to the North's leader by his formal title, chairman of the country's powerful National Defense Commission.

"I think North Korean society is still moving normally around Chairman Kim," Lee said, according to a transcript provided by his office.

The 66-year-old Kim, long believed to suffer from diabetes and heart disease, reportedly suffered a stroke and had brain surgery in August, and missed at least two key national ceremonies, including the Sept. 9 anniversary of the country's founding 60 years ago.

North Korea denies Kim's illness, and recently released pictures of him inspecting a military unit.

But questions about his health have persisted because the undated photos were not thought to have been taken recently.

Kim's health has been a focus of intense international attention because his fate is believed to be tied to that of the communist nation whose leadership he inherited after his father died in 1994.

Reports of Kim's health problems have spurred talk of a need for preparations for North Korea's possible collapse.

But Lee said he does not believe "North Korean society will collapse that easily, though the international community will be prepared for various" situations.

The two Koreas fought the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula technically still at war.

Relations between the two sides had warmed significantly since the 2000 summit, but froze this year as North Korea protested the hard-line stance that Lee has taken on Pyongyang since assuming office in February.