SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea's Kim Jong Il paid visits to machinery and soap-making factories, state media reported Tuesday, the latest in a series of dispatches in recent weeks about public appearances by a leader believed to be recovering from a stroke.
Kim's health is of keen interest because he rules the isolated, nuclear-armed nation with absolute authority and has not publicly named a successor.
Speculation about Kim's health comes at a time of increased tension on the peninsula, with the North taking steps to restrict cross-border traffic in retaliation for the new Seoul's government stance toward Pyongyang.
The 66-year-old Kim provided "field guidance" at factories in the western city of Sinuiju on the border with China, North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said.
KCNA did not provide an exact date for the visits but said Kim praised the machinery factory for fulfilling its assignments for this year "as of the end of October."
KCNA released two pictures of Kim, one showing him standing near a large orange bulldozer during the factory tour and the other of him outside a building at the soap factory. In both images, Kim was wearing a brown coat and sunglasses, and looked healthy.
But in 30 still images that appeared on North Korean state television, Kim never took his left hand out of his jacket pocket. The photos were distributed by South Korea's Unification Ministry.
Kim reportedly suffered a stroke in August and underwent brain surgery, though North Korea denies he fell ill.
Tuesday's dispatch was the latest KCNA report about Kim's public appearances. The last one, sent Nov. 16, said Kim attended military cultural performances.
The report came a day after North Korea announced it would halt tours of the historic city of Kaesong and stop train service across the border with the South because of what it said was Seoul's "confrontational" policy toward the North.
The announcement laid out the first concrete measures Pyongyang plans to take in implementing its threat to restrict cross-border traffic with the South starting Dec. 1.
The North decided not to close a joint industrial complex in Kaesong that has been a lucrative source of hard currency for the impoverished country, though it demanded that nonessential staff at South Korean factories in the zone leave.
The North also said Hyundai Asan, the main developer of the industrial zone, as well as service and construction firms there, must slash their staff by at least half.
The Unification Ministry said the North has demanded a list of people who must leave the zone. Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon said it is unclear how exactly many will be leaving.
Eighty-eight South Korean companies run factories in Kaesong, hiring some 35,000 North Korean workers. A total of about 1,600 South Koreans were in the zone Tuesday, he said.
Pyongyang has been unhappy with South Korea's conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, who has called for a tougher approach to the neighbor than his liberal predecessors.
Lee has raised questions about implementing key accords his predecessors struck with the North's Kim that call for providing aid to the North without condition. That and other moves by Seoul, including its recent sponsorship of a U.N. resolution denouncing Pyongyang's human rights record, have enraged the North.
Also angering Pyongyang are the propaganda leaflets condemning the communist regime sent by balloon by South Korean activists.
North Korea says the practice breaches a 2004 accord on ending propaganda. South Korea says it cannot ban the activists from sending the flyers because of their freedom of speech, though it has asked the activists to stop the activities.
On Tuesday, activists leaders said they considered suspending the leafletting but decided to continue after Pyongyang's announcement Monday on the border restrictions.
"This is blackmail and a threat," said Park Sang-hak, a defector from North Korea who is leading the leafletting campaign.