World watches as Kim Jong-il returns to health

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North Korea's iron leader Kim Jong-il is looking healthier by the day after seeming to be at death's door two years ago following a stroke, prompting speculation his rule may last longer than many had imagined.

Recently published images of the 69-year-old "Dear Leader" show him looking portly and pudgy-faced. That is a far cry from the sickly figure photographed in parliament in 2009 and the frail person holding on to a handrail at a military parade last year.

Diplomats and analysts agree Kim appears in better shape now, which could explain an apparent slowdown in the succession process this year after his youngest son's rapid rise in political and military circles last September.

"He does look better … he is not that guy who was propped up and was dragged around," said Brian Myers, a specialist on the secretive state's ideology at Dongseo University in South Korea.

Myers added that Kim's heavy schedule of so-called "field-guidance" inspections in the past few months has been quite extraordinary, but he cautioned against reading too much into his recovery. "He's certainly not the man he was before the stroke," he said.

Most images from the North are issued by the state media, which is largely used as a propaganda tool.

It is widely suspected that Kim suffered a stroke in 2008. This sparked a flood of media reports that the isolated state was on the threshold of a leadership change that could even precipitate its collapse.

Now experts and diplomats are re-evaluating their projections, and say the world may have to face up to Kim - and his nuclear brinkmanship - for a few more years, at least.

Daniel Pinkston, an expert on Korean affairs in Seoul with the International Crisis Group, says any improvement in Kim's health increases the chances for a third generation of dynastic rule. "It seems people are falling in line behind the succession, and of course the longer Kim stays alive the better position he is to make his preferences and to have succession fulfilled," he said.

Most photos and videotape of Kim show him favouring his right hand, with his left hand either by his side or in a jacket pocket, possibly partially paralysed by the stroke. But his appetite has clearly returned and he has a fuller head of hair.

"When a person can endure more than one year after a stroke, the condition can be much better," said Kwon Jung-taek, a neuro-surgeon at Chung-Ang University in Seoul.

"When a stroke happens, there's no 100 per cent recovery. Kim Jong-il, as far as I can see, is still not using his left hand, which implies that he hasn't recovered yet."South Korean newspapers this week published photos of Kim wearing his trademark platform shoes, saying this was another sign the leader's health was on the up.

In recent years, officials and experts have speculated Kim's death was imminent, due to any one of a litany of illnesses including pancreatic cancer, diabetes and the stroke. The latest theory is he may have suffered a brain tumour.

But Kim's health is a guessing game, gleaned from published images and reports from visiting dignitaries.

And, as with all things to do with the mysterious North, there is no way of telling the real from the unreal. For years, experts have debated the authenticity of photos released by the North's state news outlet, which are mostly not dated, and whether the images are of the real Kim.

"That's the thing: who knows?" says Pinkston. "People have speculated about a double, or what the dates of photos are, and if they are recycling stuff. It's hard to say."

In the latest "dated" photos of Kim, released this week, the leader is pictured with a visiting Russian foreign intelligence service delegation and its chief Mikhail Fradkov. The KCNA state news agency said the photo was taken on Tuesday this week.

His son, the inexperienced Jong-un, believed to be 28 or 29, was last year made a four-star general and given a senior political role in what was widely seen as the official start of succession. However, in April signals emerged of a slowdown in the transition process when the young Kim was surprisingly overlooked for a post at the powerful National Defence Commission. "It makes me think he wants to slow down the power transfer. He wouldn't be doing that if he was unhealthy," said Myers.