A series of recent events in North Korea has provoked speculation among specialists who monitor the isolated country that the communist nation is reducing the level of official reverence given its leader, Kim Jong Il.
Analysts have noted that North Korea's tightly controlled news media have altered dispatches while some official portraits of Kim have been removed from public display. The evidence is inconclusive, but analysts described a possible shift away from the cult of personality in which Kim rules the nation as a divine figure.
North Korea's state media on Wednesday broke with the rigid codes it employs in referring to Kim, dropping the highest honorific title -- great leader -- from a report on his visit to a military base. Although the term was picked up in later broadcasts, it marked the first such omission in coverage of an official Kim event since he inherited the title a decade ago from his deceased father, North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung, according to Tokyo-based Radiopress Inc., which monitors North Korea's state-run media.
This followed conflicting reports Tuesday that North Korean officials had begun taking down some of Kim's portraits, ubiquitous in public places, while those of his father remained. Sweden's ambassador to North Korea, Paul Beijer, confirmed Thursday in a telephone interview from Pyongyang that several portraits had been removed from rooms at the People's Palace of Culture in the North Korean capital in September.
[A North Korean Foreign Ministry official said such reports were a "groundless fabrication," the Reuters news agency reported on Friday.]
In a country so closed to the outside world and so regimented in how it refers to Kim, the faint evidence provoked speculation among North Korea watchers in Asia and the United States.
There was no evidence, however, to suggest that the removal of his portraits, hung in almost every building and home in North Korea, had become more widespread. But Beijer said the removal of images at the site of elaborate North Korean cultural celebrations appeared to coincide with the recent pattern of introducing Kim in speeches with fewer of his more than 2,000 honorific titles.
Analysts said that it was unlikely the changes signal an upheaval in the North Korean power structure and that they would almost certainly have been made on Kim's own orders. Experts caution that it is also too early to tell how far the apparent shift may actually go. But for a man who North Koreans are taught was born on a mountaintop, his entry to the world heralded by a double rainbow, even the embryonic stage of an image change would be considered significant.
Analysts said Kim may be attempting to portray himself as a more serious political leader to the outside world, where his demigod-like status at home has earned him a reputation as one of the world's more bizarre rulers. He may also be succumbing to pressure on several fronts to overhaul North Korea's secretive form of leadership.
China, North Korea's main benefactor, is believed to be pressing Kim to adopt a more modern image, particularly as his nation begins to introduce free-market reforms and attract foreign investors in an attempt to salvage its collapsed economy.
Kim may be moving to bolster his position by playing a somewhat humbler role in the family cult, deferring once again to his father, a beloved father figure in North Korea who remains the official head of state despite being dead.
"Kim Jong Il may be saying that he wants to remain a politician of the real world and leave divinity to his late father," said Koh Yu Hwan, professor of North Korea studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. "He's afraid that if he remains divine, he has to actually be a perfect leader and make no mistakes."
Two other diplomatic sources reached in Pyongyang on Thursday said that Kim's portraits remained as visible as ever in the city. One of the sources said their removal from the Palace of Culture may be temporary, perhaps to allow for repair or cleaning, or to make room for a new portrait of Kim for North Korea's 60th anniversary next year.
In Moscow, a North Korean Embassy official strongly denied that any effort was underway to lower Kim's profile, Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reported.
"It's false information," the diplomat was quoted as saying. "You cannot remove the sun from the sky."
Special correspondents Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo and Joohee Cho in Seoul contributed to this report.