SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea released a photograph showing leader Kim Jong Il smiling and watching a football game — the latest apparent attempt to calm intense speculation over the health of the country's absolute ruler.
Kim, 66, reportedly suffered a stroke and underwent brain surgery in August. North Korea has denied he is ill and has in recent weeks released news reports, photos and footage portraying the leader as active and able.
North Korean state television on Sunday showed an undated still photo of what it said was Kim watching a football game between two army-affiliated teams.
The photo shows Kim sitting with other people and watching something from what appears to be a special viewing stand inside a building. Kim is shown smiling, wearing his trademark sunglasses with a brown jacket and black pants.
The North's state-run TV broadcast 13 other shots showing Kim in the same clothes talking with people near a field, although no athletes are shown. The rest of photos show stand-alone scenes of a football match near a small hill with trees showing autumn foliage.
On Monday, South Korea's Dong-a Ilbo and other newspapers said the way Kim is holding his left arm appears unnatural in some of the images, suggesting that might be a sign he is suffering from paralysis as a result of his reported stroke.
Dong-a noted that Kim's left thumb is tucked into a jacket pocket in one photo, as though to support the arm.
But Dr. Kim Jong-sung, a professor of neurology at Seoul's Asan Medical Center, said such a pose does not necessarily indicate paralysis. He noted that Kim's smile looks natural, suggesting he does not have paralysis.
"Paralysis on an arm comes together with paralysis on the face and the leg" on the same side, Kim said. "His smiling face doesn't look asymmetrical and he was standing well. Therefore, it appears there is no paralysis or even if there is, it must be very light."
South Korea's Unification Ministry is analyzing the photos with the help of outside experts, spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon said Sunday. On Monday, he said he had no update, adding that it is difficult to determine the leader's health through still photos. He noted that there are no unusual signs in North Korean state affairs.
Speculation about Kim's health spiked after he missed a key celebration marking the country's 60th birthday on Sept. 9. He has not been seeing in public since mid-August.
Last week, South Korea's spy chief, Kim Sung-ho, said that the North Korean leader appeared to have recovered enough to carry out his official duties, although he was "not physically perfect."
The North released the photos and footage to show the outside world that Kim Jong Il has no health problems and is in command of the country because "speculation on his health has been raised endlessly," said Kim Keun-sik, a North Korea expert at South Korea's Kyungnam University.
The reports, photos and video of Kim attending football games and inspecting military units are all undated. Photos released last month showing a healthy-looking Kim inspecting a military unit appeared outdated, with lush greenery in the background at a time when the entire Korean peninsula is awash in autumnal foliage.
Kim's health is of keen interest because he rules the isolate, nuclear-armed nation with absolute authority and has not publicly named any successors.