SEOUL, South Korea – How ill is Kim Jong Il?
Talk of the reclusive North Korean leader's health emerged again this week when he made a rare public appearance looking a bit thinner and sporting less hair.
It was the first public view of the secretive Kim since late April, when he reviewed a military parade from a balcony over Pyongyang's main plaza, clapping and waving to his soldiers as they hysterically shouted cheers, appearing deeply moved by the rare glimpse of Kim.
This week, Chinese television broadcast video of Kim meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Pyongyang on Tuesday.
The 65-year-old leader — revered as a near-demigod in his totalitarian nation — brandished a big smile and looked generally well. But he also appeared to have lost some weight and hair, and South Korean news media revived speculation that he might be in poor health.
Kim's condition is of international interest because he tightly rules isolated, nuclear-armed North Korea, which is participating in a six-nation forum shepherding Pyongyang toward giving up its atomic weapons.
The new view of the leader came after unconfirmed news reports that Kim underwent some kind of medical procedure involving his heart in May, performed by doctors flown in from Germany. He was said to be so weak he could not walk more than 30 yards without resting.
In response to questions last month, the German Heart Institute Berlin said it had sent a team of doctors to North Korea to perform operations there — but not on Kim Jong Il.
Still, one of South Korea's three largest newspapers, Dong-a Ilbo, speculated this week after the video of Kim that the reported medical procedure might have made Kim "markedly leaner" and caused him to lose hair, saying such symptoms are common after heart surgery.
Kim Won-jang, a cardiologist at Seoul's Asan Medical Center, said some patients can lose appetite and thus weight after a heart operation, but not all do.
Nobody but North Korea can give a definite answer about Kim's health conditions. But the regime, which is one of the world's most closed and tolerates no independent press, has never commented on Kim's health — an absolute taboo in the communist country.
South Korea's main spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, said last month that Kim has long had heart disease and diabetes, but added that there was no sign the chronic ailments had progressed enough to affect his public activity.
"Our assessment of his health remains unchanged," an agency official said Friday. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as required by his office, also said the agency did not believe the report that Kim underwent a heart procedure. He declined to elaborate.
Some independent analysts also do not think Kim has any serious health problem.
"We can't assess his health conditions just by pictures, but even by the pictures, he didn't look that different from before," said Koh Yu-hwan, a respected North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University.
"I think there is no possibility of a (health) mishap, at least in the next one year or two," he added.
Paik Hak-soon, a top North Korea expert at Sejong Institute outside Seoul, agreed Kim looked a bit thinner and had less hair, but said he believes Kim's health conditions are not serious enough to affect his ability to rule. "Anybody of that age has some adult diseases," he said.
Kim has ruled North Korea with an iron fist since succeeding his late father, Kim Il Sung, the founder of the nation who built a personality cult that has survived his death.
The younger Kim, said to have a fondness for fine food, expensive alcoholic drinks like cognac and a passion for Western movies, has three known sons, but has not yet publicly designated any as his successor.
His health is of particular concern as international efforts led by the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea are gaining momentum in persuading North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.
After alarming the world by conducting its first atomic test explosion in October, North Korea pledged in February to shut down its plutonium-producing nuclear reactor in exchange for economic and political concessions.
After months of delay, caused in part by snarls in resolving a financial dispute with the U.S., the regime appears to be moving to fulfill its pledge. It reached an agreement last week with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency on how to verify and monitor the planned shutdown.