The first photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il released in two months show him in a setting very similar to photographs from August.
And the verdant background looks more like summer than autumn, adding to uncertainty about Kim's health after reports he underwent brain surgery.
North Korea released the undated still photos and video frame grabs Saturday accompanying a report by North Korean television that Kim visited a military unit. They were the first photos of Kim published since Aug. 14; and in both sets of pictures he wears his trademark dark sunglasses and a khaki jumpsuit.
"They didn't appear to have been taken recently," Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University, said Monday of the pictures carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency. "To me, it looked like they were taken in June or July."
The 66-year-old communist leader disappeared from public view in mid-August and failed to make appearances on two national holidays — leading to speculation he was seriously ill. American and South Korean officials said he suffered a stroke and had brain surgery; North Korea has denied he is ailing.
One of the photos released Saturday shows Kim surrounded by uniformed soldiers against a backdrop that appears virtually identical to the photos from August — sand-colored buildings with window frames painted in turquoise. The report said he visited female soldiers attached to a unit identified by the number 821. It did not say when or where the inspection took place
He was also shown inspecting female troops in the Aug. 14 photos. The number of the military unit identified by KCNA at the time was 1319.
South Korea's Hankook Ilbo daily, which noted similarities between the two sets of photos, said unit 821 was in Gangwon province and that the unit shown in the pictures published in August was not far away.
In the weekend photos, the grass and trees in the background appear far too green for autumn on the Korean peninsula, casting doubt that they were taken recently. Foliage in South Korea has begun showing a tinge of fall, with yellowing leaves mixed with green. Autumn arrives even earlier in North Korea.
More questions about health
For North Korea watchers, the photos released over the weekend raise more questions about Kim's health — as well as the motive and timing of the publication. The images came out before the United States removed North Korea from its list of states that sponsor terrorism, tempering rising tensions over the North's nuclear development.
Kim disappeared from view at the same time his country stopped dismantling its nuclear program under an international disarmament accord. The North was angered by the U.S. refusal to remove it from the terror sponsors list, long a demand of the communist regime.
The North Korean leader has long been believed to suffer from diabetes and heart disease. The latest images released showed no sign Kim was ill or had brain surgery.
He was shown viewing troops in training, clapping and talking to them while looking around their barracks dotted with red-and-white slogans urging loyalty to him.
His bouffant hair remained as puffy as before and there was no change in his pot belly. He also appeared to have no problem walking and using both his arms.
Brain surgery usually involves shaving off of at least some hair and results in some paralysis in many cases.
"Looking at his hands, arms and facial appearances in the still pictures, he doesn't appear to have had any problems," said Myoung C. Lee, a Seoul neurologist. "It's doubtful if they were taken recently, but it's all guesswork."
South Korean newspapers also said the pictures do not appear to be recent.
"Grass and trees in the photos show the typical sight of a summer landscape, though it is time that autumn leaves are visible in North Korea," the daily Kukmin Ilbo said.
The paper also said South Korean intelligence had seen no unusual movements where the military unit Kim reportedly visited is located, as would be expected had he visited.
South Korean officials declined to comment on the photos.
"We're keeping a close watch on Chairman Kim Jong Il's activity," said Kim Ho-nyeon of the Unification Ministry in charge of monitoring the North.
Hong Hyun-ik, a North Korea analyst at the security think tank Sejong Institute, said he also believes the latest pictures must have been taken earlier, because they were "too green" in the background and Kim appeared "too healthy."
Still, the North's release of the pictures should not be taken as evidence that Kim's health has deteriorated, he said.
"Kim Jong Il cannot appear in public unless he is in perfect shape," the analyst said. "I think North Korea released the pictures to show its people that their supreme leader is up and going, as the regime prepares to use its removal from the U.S. terrorism list as propaganda for the leader."
Kim, the Dongguk University professor, said the images appeared to be intended not only for the North Korean people, but for U.S. audiences.
"Would the United States have removed North Korea from the terrorism list if Kim Jong Il's health is serious?" he asked rhetorically. "I think the North must have felt the need to put an end to speculation about his health ahead of its removal from the terror list."
The analyst said he believes Kim is on the road to recovery and is likely to make an appearance in the near future in a way that would leave no question about his health, such as meetings with foreign diplomats.