Uncertainty about the health of North Korea's reclusive leader persisted Wednesday after a US defence official said pictures of an apparently healthy Kim Jong-Il do not appear to be recent.
The photographs released Saturday by official media in the communist state were the first of Kim since mid-August, when he reportedly suffered a stroke.
They showed the 66-year-old inspecting a women's artillery base, wearing sunglasses and looking as he has in the past with chubby cheeks and bouffant hair. State media gave no date for the visit.
A Seoul intelligence source said Sunday the foliage indicated the pictures were taken before the reported stroke.
"Analysis of the Kim Jong-Il photos shows that given the natural environment displayed in them, they were taken in July or August, although with the year unknown," the source told Yonhap news agency.
The US defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that Pentagon analysts had concurred that the dark green background foliage suggested the photographs were taken in July or August -- not in the current autumn.
Moreover, it was not clear what year the photographs were taken.
"The biggest key is the vegetation," the official said, adding that "we see nothing that would dispute what the South Koreans are saying."
Reports of Kim's illness surfaced after he failed to appear at the country's 60th anniversary parade on September 9. South Korean officials said he underwent brain surgery following a stroke around mid-August.
The officials said he is recovering well and is still in control, although other reports have indicated he may have suffered partial paralysis.
State media reported on October 4 that Kim attended a soccer match -- but released no photographs of the event, and did not say when it took place.
Kim's health is the subject of intense speculation since he has not publicly nominated a successor to run the impoverished and nuclear-armed nation.
He officially took over from his father, founding president Kim Il-Sung, in 1997 in the world's only communist dynastic succession, but is not known to have been grooming any of his own three sons.
A Seoul government source told Yonhap that Saturday's release of 10 still photographs is apparently intended to show Kim's regime is "in good shape" at home and abroad.
The North has been monitoring foreign media reports and official television noted Wednesday that foreign media had carried coverage of Kim's inspection of the artillery unit.
"The release of Kim's photos aims to calm possible unrest among the North Korean people," said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
"Kim is undoubtedly sick or at least uncomfortable with appearing in public."
A website run mainly by North Korean defectors said for the past two months Kim had not given direct instructions to members of various organisations.
The Daily NK, quoting a source from Pyongyang, said rumours of Kim's ill health were circulating among residents of the capital.
Yang said Kim is still believed to be making decisons on key issues such as military movements and a six-nations disarmament accord.
The North agreed last weekend to resume disabling its nuclear plants after Washington dropped Pyongyang from a terrorism blacklist.
"He is directing such key state issues but he probably cannot afford to give directions on trifling affairs," Yang told AFP.