North Korean leader Kim Jong Il paid a new year’s visit to soldiers from a leading tank unit in his first reported public appearance of 2009, state-run media reported Saturday.
The dispatch did not specify the exact location of Kim’s military visit but said the leader “congratulated service persons on the new year”. A photo released by the Korean Central News Agency showed Kim peering out a window, a pair of binoculars on the table before him.
Kim, 66, is believed to have suffered a stroke in August. His failure to appear at a parade marking North Korea’s 60th anniversary – and his subsequent disappearance from the public eye for some 50 days – sparked speculation about his health.
North Korea denies the reports and since early October has sent a steady stream of photos and footage of Kim chronicling what appears to be a busy wintertime tour of military units, farms and factories.
“It seems as though they are trying to prove outside speculations wrong regarding the state of Kim’s health. They want to show that Kim is fully in control of his regime,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
However, most of the reports and photos do not specify the exact location or date, making it hard for outside officials to confirm their veracity. State-run TV has not shown any live footage that could confirm Kim’s reported health, and some images released in October appeared to have been doctored or taken months before he reportedly fell ill.
Kim’s health is of keen interest because he rules the nation of 23 million people with absolute authority and has not publicly named a successor. Kim inherited leadership of the Stalinist regime upon his father’s death in 1994.
South Korean officials, who in September cited intelligence indicating Kim had suffered a stroke but was recovering, said they cannot confirm Kim’s current condition. But last week, Unification Minister Kim Ha-joong said he believed the country’s leadership was “stable”.
Analysts say more recent images sent by KCNA look credible, and back the theory that Kim is recuperating from a stroke.
Kim’s most recent visit was to a tank unit, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. Kim greeted the unit’s soldiers, watched a military display and artistic performances, toured barracks and posed for a photo with the troops, KCNA said. The agency did not release the group photo.
In the image released Saturday, Kim – wearing a winter parka, fur hat and trademark sunglasses – sits at a table as generals and commanders stand nearby.