A photo of the North Korean leader recently shown on Pyongyang's state TV appears to be a doctored version of one published in April by the country's official news agency — a possible sign his health is worsening — South Korean media reported Monday.
A still photo of 67-year-old Kim Jong Il visiting an army unit, shown on state TV on June 14, is nearly identical to an April 25 military group shot of Kim, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper said. The report cited unidentified intelligence officials who said there was a "a high possibility" the April image was recycled.
Officials at the National Intelligence Service, South Korea's main spy agency; the Unification Ministry, which handles affairs with North Korea; and the president's office said they could not confirm the report.
Kim's health has been the focus of keen attention since he reportedly suffered a stroke last August without publicly naming a successor. He looked gaunt in an April appearance in parliament.
A string of provocative moves — including an April rocket launch, a May nuclear test and continuing threats to launch another long-range missile — are believed linked to a succession campaign under way in North Korea as Kim seeks to shore up national unity before tapping his youngest son as the communist nation's next leader.
Earlier this month, the South Korean spy agency told lawmakers that Pyongyang notified its diplomatic missions and government agencies overseas that 26-year-old son Kim Jong Un was in line to succeed him.
South Korea's Dong-a Ilbo newspaper said last week that Kim has put Jong Un in charge of the country's powerful spy agency.
The Chosun Ilbo said intelligence authorities reported their assessment of recent photos of Kim to South Korea's presidential Blue House, prompting officials to keep a close watch on Kim's health.
In both photos, which the newspaper published, Kim stands with a group of soldiers with the same ceiling lights above them and a banner calling for loyalty to the leader behind them.
The positioning of many of people in the photos is largely the same — except for a dozen figures who do not appear in the later image. No exact date for the June photo was provided in the Korean Central News Agency report.
A third photo, also published June 14, shows Kim wearing a winter jacket during the height of summer.
Recovering from stroke
Nam Ju-hong, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Kyonggi University, said Kim's made so many public appearances this year while recovering from his stroke — probably to allay public concerns and media speculation about his health — that he may have collapsed again. The Unification Ministry said last week that Kim has made 77 public appearances this year, compared with 49 during the same period last year.
Paik Hak-soon, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute think tank outside Seoul, said the photos looked identical but suggested it was premature to conclude Kim's health had worsened on the basis of only one photo.
Also Monday, the North criticized the U.S. for positioning missile defense systems around Hawaii, calling the deployment part of a plot to attack the regime. The North said it would bolster its nuclear arsenal in retaliation.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he ordered the deployment of a ground-based, mobile missile intercept system and radar system to Hawaii amid concerns the North may fire a long-range missile toward the islands, about 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers) away.
"Through the U.S. forces' clamorous movements, it has been brought to light that the U.S. attempt to launch a pre-emptive strike on our republic has become a brutal fact," the North's main Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary.
The paper also accused the U.S. of deploying aircraft carrier USS George Washington and Ohio-class submarines armed with nuclear warheads in the waters near the Korean peninsula, saying the moves prove "the U.S. pre-emptive nuclear war" on the North is imminent.
Bolstering nuclear arsenal
The commentary, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, said the North will bolster its nuclear arsenal in self-defense.
The George Washington — one of the largest warships in the world — has its home port at the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet in Yokosuka, Japan, and spends about half the year at sea.
Jeff A. Davis, a fleet public affairs officer, said Monday that his office cannot comment "specifically where the carrier is right now."
The North routinely accuses the U.S. of plotting to invade. But Washington, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea, has said it has no such plan.
South Korea's prime minister urged the North to immediately abandon its nuclear program, saying the regime's recent atomic and missile tests "are threatening" international and regional peace.
"We will never tolerate North Korea's nuclear development," Prime Minister Han Seung-soo said during a speech marking the anniversary of a 2002 bloody naval skirmishes between the Koreas.