North Korea campaigns to show healthy Kim Jong-il

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea said on Wednesday Kim Jong-il had inspected two military sites and it released pictures of the visit, stepping up a campaign to show that the leader, thought to have suffered a stroke, was healthy.

Analysts said that despite being in one of the world’s most-closed countries, many North Koreans had probably heard reports in the outside media that Kim had suffered a serious health setback and the North’s propaganda machine was responding by saying he is active and in control of the communist state.

The North’s official KCNA news agency said Kim inspected two facilities of the Korean People’s Army, without saying when he made the visits.

The North’s state television station showed several still pictures of the visits where Kim, wearing sunglasses and an autumn coat, walks with the troops, claps his hands and poses with groups of soldiers.

Kim appears to have lost little weight and has a full head of hair, even though some intelligence sources said he may have had brain surgery. The images were the most the North has released of Kim in months and show him far more active than in recent other shots.

“He highly praised them on their successes in training and put forward highly important tasks which would serve as guidelines for bolstering up the heroic Korean People’s Army as invincible revolutionary armed forces,” KCNA said.

The South’s Unification Ministry would not make any guesses on Kim’s health.

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“There are pictures in the background that suggest the timing, and he’s wearing a parka, which is not for summer, so that would be right for the season,” spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon said.

One of the bases visited is believed to be a major army unit near the capital, Pyongyang, and has been the site of frequent inspections by Kim in recent years, the spokesman said.

At the weekend, the North released photographs it said showed Kim watching a soccer match. Last month it said he was out in public twice -- once to see a separate soccer match and inspect a unit of women soldiers.

But some of the undated photographs released by the North raised more questions about his health than they answered.

Experts in the South said the pictures released in October of his visit to the women soldiers were taken several months ago, and well before his illness.

Pictures released at the weekend of the soccer match show Kim smiling and standing, but speculation was raised in the South’s media that Kim may have suffered some paralysis on his left side based on a few glimpses of a little-used left hand.

South Korean officials said Kim was apparently on the mend from a stroke. His illness has raised questions about leadership in Asia’s only communist dynasty and who was making decisions concerning its nuclear weapons program.

Additional reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani