Page last updated at 14:59 GMT, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

'Fake photo' revives Kim rumours

Fresh speculation was sparked about the health of North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il, amid suggestions that an image of Mr Kim was doctored.

The image was one of several released on 5 November, appearing to show Mr Kim inspecting two military units. No proof of the date of the images was provided.

An analysis by the UK's Times newspaper highlighted possible incongruities around the leader's legs in the photo.

It gave new life to suggestions Mr Kim may be seriously unwell.

"They go into ostrich mode so readily - because they have given no clue about what would happen without him," North Korea expert Aidan Foster-Carter told the BBC.

Unlike the previous handover of power from the Great Leader Kim Il-sung to his son - which was planned and made public decades in advance - there has been no public announcement about who will succeed Kim Jong-il, 66.

Propaganda battle

The suspicions about Mr Kim's health have gathered force since about mid-August, amid a sudden lull in news reports and official images released by the official North Korean news agency, the KCNA.

His disappearance sparked suggestions he was undergoing brain surgery for a stroke or even that he had died.

If they want to stop speculation, they have to produce him - as long as they don't, we will still wonder
Aidan Foster-Carter
North Korea expert
In an apparent bid to stop the rumours, Pyongyang recently released a succession of images and news stories which purportedly show the leader in good health.

The BBC carried one such image - of Mr Kim posing with a unit of North Korean soldiers - in a report on Mr Kim's apparent return to health and a normal schedule.

But the Times report suggested the image might not be all it seemed.

In the photo, the shadow cast by Mr Kim's calves runs in a different direction from the shadow cast by the soldiers on either side of him, the Times pointed out.

In addition, a black line running along the stand on which the soldiers are positioned vanishes on either side of Mr Kim. This prompted the Times to question the photo's authenticity - though research in photo archives revealed the black line was also absent in other, presumably older photos and may simply be a feature of the stand.

In an earlier version of this story, the BBC pointed out apparently mismatched pixels on the right side of Mr Kim's legs. However, a new analysis suggests this incongruity could be explained by innocent technical factors.

The validity of other pictures released by the North Korean state has been questioned in the past. For example, one image released in October appeared to include lush foliage in the background that was incongruous with autumn.

No proof of the date taken has been provided with any of the photos recently released.

'Old trick'

According to Mr Foster-Carter, the North Koreans do not baulk at using photo fakery for ideological purposes.

"They've faked pictures from way back, such as ones with his father on top of Paektu Mountain [a mountain with special resonance in Korean mythology]," he told the BBC.

"It does seem likely that he's still ill. They sometimes don't realise that what a domestic audience will accept won't necessarily work for a more sceptical international audience.

"You think they'd be a bit more proficient at doing this by now!"

Mr Foster-Carter says North Korean authorities will now face renewed pressure to prove Mr Kim is alive and not incapacitated.

"If they want to stop speculation, they have to produce him - as long as they don't, we will still wonder."

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