Since Sunday, news outlets in the North have described three separate appearances by Kim, 66, who officials in Washington and Seoul have said probably suffered a stroke around August and may have undergone brain surgery.
In the latest report, the North’s official news agency, KCNA, said on Thursday that Kim had attended a concert, where a state choir and opera groups performed numbers like “Please Receive Our Salute!”
Photographs of Kim that have accompanied these reports have been avidly studied by North Korea watchers in government and media. Aided by neurosurgeons and other experts, they have scrutinized every detail, from Kim’s facial expressions to background scenery, to gauge his condition.
“The reports and release of his pictures are carefully calculated and timed,” said Ryoo Kihl Jae, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “It’s Kim Jong Il’s way of responding to the intense outside attention to him. He is a man very sensitive to how the outside world views him.”
But the photographs have raised at least as many questions as they have answered. Pyongyang’s state media never reveal when the pictures were taken, further confounding the analysts.
Undated pictures released on Oct. 11, for example, showed Kim inspecting a military unit and looking healthy. But they showed green foliage, while trees on the Korean Peninsula at the time were tinged with red and gold.
Then, on Sunday, North Korea issued two photos of Kim, saying he was watching a soccer match. This time, the background vegetation had appropriately autumnal colors.
In one picture, Kim was smiling. The smile, experts noted, was symmetrical enough to exclude any serious paralysis of the facial muscles, a common occurrence among people who suffered a stroke.
Kim also had a full head of hair, despite reports that he may have had brain surgery.
But then the experts noted that in both pictures Kim’s left hand looked immobile, either resting limply on his lap or in a pocket. They also noted that Kim was not wearing the platform shoes he usually uses to elevate his short stature.
Such details led news media to speculate that Kim might be suffering paralysis on the left side of his body and could not walk.
On Wednesday, 14 photographs were released that seemed intended to dispel such notions. They showed Kim walking about and clapping his hands.
“The fact that the North is going to such lengths to demonstrate that Kim Jong Il is O.K. is, ironically, a sign that his health is not normal,” Ryoo said.
Other analysts said the timing of recent reports about Kim were as much linked to the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president as to Kim’s seemingly recovered health.
“Kim Jong Il wants to show that he is in control, and that he has no problem being a partner of dialogue with the United States,” said Kim Yong Hyun, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University.
He suggested that the North Korean leader might soon stage a “foolproof” demonstration of his heath, for example by releasing a video of his public activities or paying a courtesy call to the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang. China is North Korea’s main ally.