SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea released new photographs of Kim Jong Il touring a factory following reports earlier this week that the 67-year-old leader has pancreatic cancer and fewer than five years to live.
Wearing sunglasses and a short-sleeved shirt, Kim appeared generally OK in the images released Tuesday night — thin but no worse than in other recent photographs. He has grown frailer over the past year after reportedly suffering a stroke last summer.
In some of the images, carried by North Korean TV and the official Korean Central News Agency, Kim was walking around a newly built tile factory, smiling broadly. The photos were undated, but KCNA had sent a text report about the tour on Monday without specifying the date of the visit.
Other photos, however, showed Kim sitting in a chair during an outdoor briefing by factory officials while a soldier held a sunshade over him. Such images are unusual and could suggest his health may not be good, the Yonhap news agency said.
But South Korea's Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said Wednesday that it is not the first time the North has released photos of Kim sitting during his field-guidance trips.
"Only by looking at yesterday's photos, it's difficult to determine" Kim's health, the spokesman said.
Kim's health has been the focus of intense media speculation because he rules absolutely and some analysts have said there could be a power struggle in the North if he were to die without naming a successor.
On Monday, Seoul's YTN television said that Kim was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer around the time he was reported to have collapsed from a stroke in August last year. YTN quoted unidentified intelligence officials in South Korea and China.
Analysts, however, were skeptical, saying Kim's increasing appearances in public this year suggest that he is unlikely to be suffering from cancer. Kim's latest trip to the tile factory brought the total number of such trips this year to 82, compared with 57 visits made during the same period last year, according to the Unification Ministry.
Last week, Kim made a rare televised appearance. Footage showed him looking markedly thinner and with less hair. He also limped slightly, and the sides of his tightly pursed lips looked imbalanced in what were believed to be the effects of a stroke.
The images touched off speculation that Kim — suspected of having long suffered diabetes and heart problems — could have other health worries as well.