SEOUL North Korean media said on Tuesday that leader Kim Jong-il was keeping up a busy schedule of visits around the country, a day after a South Korean television station said he had life-threatening pancreatic cancer.
The reclusive state's media has often shown Kim touring factories, farms and military bases this year, trying to convey a sense of normalcy for North Koreans during a period of uncertainty in the impoverished country, experts said.
They said such trips could also be as helpful at building internal support for the 67-year-old leader as recent nuclear and missile tests, military moves seen as partly driven by Kim's efforts to pave the way for succession to his youngest son.
"If his appearance has changed severely, it may only reinforce the view of the North Korean public that Kim Jong-il is going out of his way to work for them, which increases sympathy from the people," said Koh Yu-hwan, a specialist on the North's leadership at the South's Dongguk University.
The North's KCNA news agency said on Tuesday that Kim toured a tile factory. It released photographs of the undated visit where his thinning hair was tousled and his body appeared gaunt.
"He expressed great satisfaction over the fact that the soldier builders have built the modern factory in such a manner," KCNA said.
It is only on rare occasions that North Korea shows Kim as a grand leader presiding over state events. Instead, he is mostly seen in photographs touring towns and villages.
These visits, known as field guidance, secure his leadership by showing he shares his people's pain and understands their hardships, even though intelligence accounts say he lives a life of luxury.
Despite his health problems, Kim has been reported this year in North Korean media as making more than 80 such visits, a sharp increase from a year ago, the South's Unification Ministry said.
ILLNESS AND WAR
Further questions were raised about Kim's health after South Korean broadcaster YTN, quoting intelligence sources, said on Monday he was suffering from pancreatic cancer.
U.S. and South Korean officials would not confirm the report but have said Kim suffered a stroke a year ago and his health still appears to be poor.
North Korea's official TV showed a sickly looking Kim at a state event last week.
Kim has not anointed a successor, but South Korean officials said top communist and military officials have been asked to pledge loyalty to his youngest son Jong-un, thought to be 25, in an apparent sign he is the heir to Asia's only communist dynasty.
One problem for Kim is if the North's people, and more importantly the elite, stop seeing his health as a matter that arouses sympathy and start imagining a North Korea not led by him.
"When you are in that latter situation, the elite is naturally going to start aligning itself with whoever it thinks is going to take over," said B.R. Myers, an expert on the North's state ideology at the South's Dongseo University.
"It puts his leadership in a crisis regardless of what the average people might be thinking."
Myers said he was concerned Kim's health could spark a full-fledged military crisis on the Korean peninsula.
In the past few months, the North has launched a barrage of missiles, threatened to attack the South and tested a nuclear device, which put it closer to having a working nuclear device.
"It is completely logical and makes sense that he would make a gamble at this time," Myers said.
(Additional reporting by Christine Kim, Editing by Dean Yates)