Kim Jong Il reportedly makes public visits

/ Source: The Associated Press

North Korea's Kim Jong Il paid visits to machinery and soap-making factories, state media reported Tuesday, the latest in a series of dispatches in recent weeks about public appearances by a leader believed to be recovering from a stroke.

Kim's health is of keen interest because he rules the isolated, nuclear-armed nation with absolute authority and has not publicly named a successor.

Speculation about Kim's health comes at a time of increased tension on the peninsula, with the North taking steps to restrict cross-border traffic in retaliation against the tough policies of Seoul's new conservative government.

North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency said Tuesday that Kim provided "field guidance" at factories in the western city of Sinuiju on the border with China.

KCNA did not provide an exact date of the visits but said Kim praised the machinery factory for fulfilling its assignments for this year "as of the end of October."

KCNA later released two pictures of Kim. One showed him and two aides standing near a large orange bulldozer during the factory tour. The other showed Kim outside a building at the soap factory.

In both images, Kim was wearing a brown coat and sunglasses, and looked healthy.

Kim reportedly suffered a stroke in August and underwent brain surgery, though North Korea denies he fell ill.

Tuesday's report was the latest KCNA report about Kim's public appearances. The last one, sent Nov. 16, said Kim attended cultural performances by the military.

Tours, train service halted
The report came a day after North Korea announced it would halt tours of the historic city of Kaesong and stop train service across the border with the South because of what it said was Seoul's "confrontational" policy toward the North.

The announcement laid out the first concrete measures Pyongyang plans to take in implementing its threat to restrict cross-border traffic with the South starting Dec. 1.

Still, the North decided not to close a joint industrial complex in Kaesong that has been a lucrative source of hard currency for the impoverished country, though it demanded that nonessential staff at South Korean factories in the zone leave.

The North also demanded that Hyundai Asan, the main developer of the industrial zone, as well as service and construction firms there slash their staff by at least half.

South Korea's Unification Ministry, in charge of ties with Pyongyang, said the North has demanded a list of people to pull out of the zone. Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon said it is unclear yet how many will be leaving.

Eighty-eight South Korean companies run factories in Kaesong, hiring some 35,000 North Korean workers. A total of about 1,600 South Koreans were in the zone on Tuesday, the spokesman said.

Pyongyang has been unhappy with South Korea's conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, who has called for a tougher approach to the neighbor than his liberal predecessors.

Lee has raised questions about implementing key accords his predecessors struck with the North's Kim that call for providing aid to the North without condition. That and other moves by Seoul, including its recent sponsorship of a U.N. resolution denouncing Pyongyang's human rights record, have enraged the North.